Where Do the Humanities Belong?

This post was written by Ansley Morris, a Humanities Center student fellow. 


When I tell someone I’m an English major, the first question they ask me is always the same: “Oh, so you want to be a teacher?”

Aside from the instructor who asked me to read aloud on the day I got retainers in 7th grade, I have loved every teacher I’ve ever had, but I didn’t choose my major with that career in mind. My motivations have always been simple: I love to read, I like to write, and I want to spend my semesters getting better at both. So, why is it that everyone expects me to be Ms. Morris after graduation?

I’ve come to realize that it’s because people aren’t quite sure where the humanities belong. In the classroom? Certainly. Beyond that? I’m usually met with a blank stare.

The truth is that the humanities belong everywhere. In work, in play, in school, in conversation—wherever we are they should be too. They help us discover sides of ourselves we’ve never met, and they have the power to show others who we are. It’s why we ask readers their favorite book or first dates their favorite movie; they are the building blocks to great relationships. Engaging with the humanities transforms us into conversationalists, and in moments when we least expect it, we can find a shared connection.

This summer, my brother helped me pack my bags to spend a few months in Arizona with my family. On the wall above my desk, I have framed six prints of my favorite artwork. As I shuffled around my room, pulling socks and t-shirts from drawers, my brother studied my scrappy gallery.

“Monet got me into medical school,” he said quietly.

I nodded my head in agreement, distracted by the game of Tetris I was playing with my packing cubes, until I realized what he had said. “Monet got you into medical school?”

He pointed at the 3×5 Impression, Sunrise hanging from two command strips on my scarred, off-white wall and told me about the time that painting changed his life.

He was a year away from his bachelor’s degree in biology, sitting across the table from the man who would decide his future: a Russian polyglot with a PhD in Paleontology and a passion for art. My brother had mentioned his own interest in art history during the application process, and it became the focus of their exchange. Monet was brought up as the doctor’s favorite artist, and my brother had an affinity for the way he captured the elements, dubbing him “the master of water.” It was the start of a beautiful conversation—one that had little to do with medicine. A few months later, my brother was accepted to that school in Missouri. He still attributes his success to the 19th century Impressionist: “We hit it off and art was the spark.”

Years have passed since the interview, and my brother now pays his keep in the Emergency Room with technical knowledge and a steady suturing hand (injured patients don’t particularly care about their doctor’s take on Monet). But at one time, even if it was only for a few minutes, his love for art mattered; it was the beginning of his career. Why then, in a world dominated by science, did the humanities make a difference?

Art illuminates the very soul of a person. The humanities make meaning out of carved marble, sheet music, and letters on a page; they define our lives and bring depth to our existence. We bond together over the things we love and the things we create. We stretch our minds beyond the literal and employ our imagination every time we engage with them. While it’s imperative that the humanities be taught in classrooms around the world, it’s just as vital that they persist in every aspect of our lives: museum walls, dinner tables, bedtime stories, love letters, and even medical school interviews.

I accredit my love for English and the arts to hundreds of hours behind a desk, so I can’t promise that you’ll never see me in the front of a classroom. But, for now, I’m a student of the humanities simply because I love it. So no, I’m not sure “what I plan to do with that” English degree just yet, but I do know that it will take me wherever I hope to go. After all, the humanities are all around us.

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