Sitting in my American Studies course, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not the facts of history, no, though those too can be double-blink inducing, but a debate my classmates were having. We'd been reading a historical narrative about African American and Cherokee history in the 1700 to the 1800s, specifically woven around a core story of an African American slave who comes to marry and have children with her Cherokee master. Our book details the racial, sexual and cultural conflicts (all of which are tethered to the political, surprise, surprise) during this period. The issue raised was the author's inclusion of literary references to fill in the emotional gaps of the often-scarce historical facts. One classmate slammed this one down on the table: "I want my history to be just that—historical dates and documents, that's it." She didn't even want to discuss why the literature was there, or what it could do. Perhaps as the lone English major in the room, I took it too personally, the comment stinging my booky soul.
But what then erupted was a debate largely centered on the place of one area of academia in another, even in our discussion. Another classmate quipped, "the author really just dumbed it all down. Why didn't she just throw in a sex scene while she was at it?"
Ouch. What was going on here? Students of a five college, liberal arts consortium and suddenly, if you mention literature in a history class, you're an intellectual pollutant? Though perhaps the literary analysis was not prime (the author is a historian, not a literary critic), I hardly believed injecting the flesh and bones of historical detail with the warm blood of referenced fiction was akin to adding a skeezy solicitous romp for the lowbrow pleasures of the peanut gallery.
The very next day as I waited in line to go to the dining hall after a class I'm taking about sleep, two individuals in front of me stood looking at the posted lecture series that accompanies the class. "What a stupid, frivolous subject, why would anyone study that?" one muttered to the snickering other.
Rage alighted yet again. I readily wished to retort, Well, because we all spend one third of our lives doing it, and it can affect memory, creativity, decision making, the immune system, weight gain, our chances of getting and dying from heart disease and type two diabetes, sexuality, mood and even how long you'll live, just to name a few. Now if you'll excuse me, it's bread bowl day. But because I'm a pen-over-the-sword type I could only mutter bitterly and walk away to get my chowder.
While we all may maintain a healthy appreciation and preference for our own areas of study (that's why we chose to study them...hopefully), I can't help but feel an often almost vindictive spite for certain focuses among students. Countless times I've heard others bewail their workload, snapping at anyone else who would dare complain about her own. I have to write a 12-page lab report tonight. Oh yeah? Well do you have to understand Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" by Monday? I didn't think so. Others comfort their fellows by belittling others, "well at least you're not a ___ major," hardeeharhar.
I don't love everything about Psychology or English. Statistics made me want to stab my eyes out with a pencil so I'd never see a spreadsheet again. I might even jeer at the Wife of Bath from the sidelines. A little (or a lot of) complaining seems inherent in our college culture but it's time to start putting our mouths where our money is.
My tuition might currently be directly siphoned into buying dead cats for biology students to slice open, into a master of mime's salary, into the maintenance of crusty old cameras that still use film, and I'm good with that. As students of a liberal arts education we supposedly support the intertwining of disciplines as a venue through which we may more thoroughly come to understand our own. You think math majors in the 1700s jeered at Bach for being arty? Doubtful.
I am dating an Engineering major, and I am currently living with American Studies, Religious Studies and Chemistry majors (as well as a fellow English major, we stick together in case sword-over-pen situations arise and we need to scrawl a treaty). The complexity and diversity of our everyday conversations, disagreements and debates are made possible by an environment that trains us to think inside our box, and that box, and this other box here and see how they might all fit together.
It is very possible I am stretching the class debate out of context, maybe the author of our American studies book did a bad job using literature to enhance elements of history, but I'm glad she tried. With less than one hundred days before I graduate, developing my own view from what I study, and what I can learn from the studies of others, is more important to me than which few facts from my selected disciplines I can nail down into my brain.
Now go hug an organic chemistry student.