Humanitas: Chapter One

In college, I studied literature, which in short, was not a popular decision. One year, at my parents’ Christmas party, I answered the same sequence of questions too many times to count. “Sarah, what is your major?” “English? What on earth are you going to do with that?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” No, unfortunately, at the time, I did not have a boyfriend. To my inquisitors, I seemed like a lost cause: foolish on her own with no hope of someone to marry her out of her poor decisions.

Of course, this sort of misguided inquiry happens more often to women than men. My brother, a few years my junior, stood next to me throughout the party. He was just beginning film school, and despite this being a creative, highly competitive field, the same people could not wait to shower him with compliments about his unmatched talent, drive, and certain promise. No one asked him if he had a girlfriend, just about the projects he was working on.

Since the day he was born, I have been my brother’s cheerleader and protector, ecstatic about all he learned and learns, all he was, all he became, all is he today. I agreed wholeheartedly with the partygoers’ praise. I was not resentful of the warmth and achievement aimed toward him. He deserved it. He had worked hard to earn it. I simply noticed the gulf between us. A young man makes a brave choice to study something creative, deep, critical, and influential – he is a genius. A young woman makes another choice to study something equally deep and creative, the source of human wisdom since the beginning of time – well, she better marry well.

Luckily, I have the same support returned to me by my sibling (and of course, my parents). My feminist brother, Geoffrey, noticed this ordinary injustice and spent more of the party defending me than thanking them, talking about my writing and my passion for human rights work.

Later that year, I was on the phone with a “mentor,” discussing my decision to study literature, and he said, “What? All you’ll be able to be is a grant writer. You seriously need to reconsider that choice.” His following implication was: as a woman your road will be harder – you need to pick something much more serious in order to get ahead. In his opinion, I actually had the choice between political science, economics, or International Politics and Economics. I felt indignant and deeply misunderstood.

Recently, I was listening to an interview with a writer I admire who said, “I did not study literature in college because I figured, ‘I can read a freaking book.'” And while watching a TV show, a character said, in what I guess was supposed to be a witty moment, “You are showing every girl who studied English in college that she didn’t waste four years of her life.” 

These words stung the wounds I thought I had healed. I chose to study literature because it was in the humanities, because it stood in opposition to disciplines that turn life into science, that can entrench oppression, that worship at the altar of objectivity, hyper-rationality, reason, tangibility, measurability. I wanted to study constellations of the human experience. I wanted to take this question seriously: what is the nature of this thing we call the human experience and what is its purpose?

By immersing myself in the humanities, I studied, therefore, not only literature, but philosophy, social theory, history, and ethics. I became a better writer, a better student, a softer person, an educated person. I became a person who could see  and tend to human vulnerability, with the language to understand it and the moral fiber to want to protect it.

To me, studying literature, in all its forms, was not just about reading books. I read new books every week still. I read new books then, on my own. Studying literature was like diving deep into the depths of the ocean with a scuba mask on: breathing in a new way, examining the life that was hidden beneath the surface, finding treasure there, and bringing those truths borne of discovery back to the noise and upset of regular life. Studying English was in no way a waste. It was counter-cultural work. To steep oneself in irreconcilable complexity, to reckon with difference, to analyze words and stories carefully, to flip the thesis, to place aside the myth of objectivity for the sake of understanding…does that sound like something we could use more of in this culture? 

So, yes, I could have become a grant writer or an English teacher or an ESL teacher or a journalist or an editor or a publisher or a speech writer or a literary non-profit employee or a tutor or a writing coach or an academic or a librarian – those are all noble professions, options I still consider today, but I did not study English for an outcome. And yes, that is a deeply privileged posture, one that my parents could not afford to take when they were in college or in their 20s. It is also true, however, that the humanities – literature, religion, philosophy, history – are defined by and drawn from the word human. It is the collective discipline of studying what makes us human, which the answer to such a question has been for centuries: art and wisdom and sometimes, the search for God. The humanities do not bear the practices of a trade, but they help us gather knowledge and perspective.

In this age of acceleration, in which more people believe they have the concrete answers for everything, in which more people believe that technology holds the secret to immortality, in which less people believe in God, in which less people spend time reading  and more time watching, I believe the sanctity of the humanities offers us the tools to become wiser and the balm for our souls that we need.

Because of course, after one year of working for a literary non-profit, I decided to go to divinity school, which you can only imagine how that went down at cocktail parties. Tomorrow, in “Chapter Two,” I’ll write about the transition from studying literature to studying religion, but for now, I will leave you with this:

“She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” – Annie Dillard