Student Perspective: The Questioning Life of a Humanities Major

by Clio Korn '10

Tony Crowley and Clio Korn

It’s late afternoon, and Professor Crowley is insisting to his “Language, Culture, and Society” class that the concepts and categories that define our world are human creations — it’s all a social construction. A fellow humanities major looks troubled, and Professor Crowley remarks, “Feel like the floor’s been pulled out from under you?” We laugh because we’ve all had that feeling. When you major in Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture, you come to expect that your most basic assumptions will be challenged and your worldview thrown into question on a regular basis. I love these challenges, the paradoxes, the questions with no final answers. That’s why I’m a humanities major.

Humanities classes train you to question everything — to recognize the layers of meaning in a situation, assess how these meanings are created, notice who creates particular meanings and who benefits from them, and examine the validity of the assumptions inherent in these meanings. While visiting a museum, a humanities major might ask why a Picasso painting, but not a child’s doodle, is considered great art and afforded a spot on the museum’s wall, or she might reflect on how the meaning of a ceremonial mask changes when it is moved from a ritual context into a museum case. While reading the newspaper, a humanities major might consider who decides what violence counts as war, what as terrorism, what as revolution, and contemplate how these distinctions influence people’s views of foreign policy. These are hard questions. They lead to more questions, not firm answers. They push you to take a close look at how you think, to ask why you think the way you do, and to assess the consequences of thinking in this way. The uncertainty this questioning uncovers can be troubling and unsettling, but I also find it thrilling. The world is a very interesting place when seen through a humanities major’s eyes: boundaries become blurry, distinct categories melt into a continuum, and interpretations multiply.

I find that things get even more interesting when you look at them from the perspectives of both humanities and neuroscience, which is why I’m pursuing a second major in cellular and molecular neuroscience. Both fields investigate how our minds work — neuroscience at the level of the physical brain, humanities on a more conceptual level. The combination of these perspectives is very powerful. For example, writers in humanities have exposed the continuum of gender and sex that underlies the socially constructed categories of “male” and “female,” and their arguments are backed by scientific studies of people who are born with an indeterminate sex. Yet our society still overwhelming operates on the assumption that “male” and “female” are distinct, mutually exclusive categories. In science, questions are posed and experiments conducted in the context of this view. A humanities perspective, supported by critically examined scientific data, can reshape our thinking and rid it of faulty assumptions.

Humanities offers insights into every aspect of my life. Last semester a friend and I did a project on Facebook: we examined how it forces people to define themselves in terms of predetermined categories and the potential for individual creativity within the confines of these categories. When I visited Uganda last summer, the mindset I cultivate in humanities classes helped me stay intellectually interested in my experience even when I felt emotionally disconnected from the people around me because their culture was so different from my own; as I taught neuroscience to Ugandan counseling students, that humanities mindset helped me be sensitive to their largely non-scientific worldviews. In the future, I plan to conduct research in social neuroscience and investigate the nature of consciousness. Both issues lie at the intersection of humanities and neuroscience, and I’m sure my humanities training will keep me continually questioning as I design experiments. Ultimately, I’m majoring in humanities because I think the questions it poses are essential to living a thoughtful life.


Above: Professor Tony Crowley and Clio Korn in Holden Court. In early April, Korn, a junior, learned she had been awarded a Goldwater scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying science and mathematics; Korn is pursuing a double major in humanities and in cellular and molecular neuroscience.

 

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