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A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the University of Maryland, College Park bookstore to purchase books for my classes this semester. I’ve done this enough times before that the process has become more of a script and less of a twisted Easter egg hunt.
While gathering my books, I noticed a difference in my book for psychology and my books for English literature. My psychology book is a large, heavy textbook. My books for English literature classes are book-books ranging from Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray to Sigmund Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.
I never realized this shift in my schoolbooks from textbooks to mostly book-books, probably because it happened so gradually. I don’t miss textbooks. There is a part in Deborah Eisenberg’s “The Girl Who Left Her Sock On The Floor”, in which the main character, Francie, is looking at a textbook and wonders, “who were ‘Editors Clark & Melton,’ for that matter, to be in charge of what was going on? To decide which, out of all of the things that went on, were things that had happened.” Textbooks are subjective summaries on various topics, parading themselves as objective facts. Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge advocate of the sciences. There is a place in this world for science and mathematics, and I am grateful for all of the young minds pursuing those fields of study. Science can offer the closest thing we will probably ever have to objective facts.
The humanities, however, do not summarize. The humanities give students raw materials and equip them with skills to critically analyze and interpret things for themselves. In my literature class, I’m not reading a chapter summary of Sigmund Freud in a textbook, like I am in psychology. I’m reading a book by Sigmund Freud. I get to decide what Freud was like and whether his science was “good” or “bad,” and how I think his writing influenced the world around him. How else do we know and understand the world other than by a collection of subjective experiences? Why should I put all of my trust in anyone else’s interpretation of the world when I have the ability to decide for myself?
If the humanities have taught me anything, it’s that what we know about the world is always changing. We get it wrong a lot. Sigmund Freud got it wrong, but there was a time when his science was understood as fact. The humanities have given me the ability to step outside of social norms and question History and Knowledge. The humanities have taught me to never say, “That’s just how we do it” but instead say, “How else can we do it?”
On the first day of class, one of my professors reminded us of a Saturday Night Live skit called “Pre-Chew Charlie’s” in which servers at a restaurant pre-chew their customers’ food. He told us that while we read any text, he wants us to “chew for ourselves.” That is why the humanities are so important. They are teaching our future generations to be chewers.
Chew on that.
Student on the HoCoPoLitSo Board