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January 29, 2016

Applying knowledge to your life

I spent my Christmas break at home in Ottawa with my immediate family, and besides several cameos made by my friends, my holiday was quiet. However, in the past it has not been as tranquil. I am thinking specifically of my first Christmas after I had started university. That was when I found myself the centre of attention at family gatherings. Since I am the oldest child among my relatives, they all wanted to know how my university experience was going. Inevitably, everyone asked me the same question, “What are you studying?” At that point in my university career, I figured being vague was the best way to explain the Humanities. I told my aunt, uncle and cousins that my program is a mixture of political science, literature, philosophy and the creative arts. When I continued to receive confused looks, I simply listed some of the books we were studying and that satisfied everyone enough to move on to another topic.

Now when I need to explain the Humanities program to someone, I tend to rely upon a subset of phrases that my friends and I have unconsciously developed for those types of situations.  We casually insert names like Plato, Socrates, Euripides and Shelley into conversations because that is the easiest way to explain ourselves to other people. We study thoughts, ideas and theories. We study people, places and things. We study the world, human culture and everything in between. I thought this was a grand way of describing the program until I read Montaigne. Over the break I was catching up on some reading when I stumbled across this passage in Montaigne’s collection of essays: “We know how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’…But what have we got to say?” Those words made me pause because, over the past three years, I have been telling people about what I am learning but that is really only half of what the Humanities is all about.

The Humanities program is not about parroting; it is about discovering. Some of us connect with Plato more than Aristotle and we take the time to understand why we have different preferences. The key part of the program for me is the emphasis on self-reflection and the importance of interpretation. Yes, there are right and wrong answers, especially when it comes to our exams, but there is a bigger picture in the Humanities program. In the end, it is not specifically about the knowledge you have:  dates and terms can be memorized and some peoples’ brains understand philosophical concepts better than others.

The Humanities is about how you apply knowledge to your life. In our program we learn a great deal, but all of that knowledge serves little purpose if we do not recognize how best to use it. We want to be better people, and though at times we may sound a touch pretentious, I guarantee you we are simply trying to figure out how best to apply our knowledge to the world around us. Sometimes we decide to rant on the bus about the merits of Greek gods and goddesses versus those of the Romans, and sometimes we sit and listen to the same piece of opera consecutively over four days until we feel more connected to it. We have all of this knowledge and we want to share it. So, the next time I explain the program to someone I will add this tidbit:  we learn about other peoples’ ideas in order to learn about our world and ourselves. Yes, we learn for the sake of learning, but also for the sake of acting, moving forward and making progress.

March 30, 2015

What will your story be?

One of the most telling stories that a member of the College of the Humanities can relate is how they discovered the Humanities (Great Books) program. I know that during my first year, we spent one whole discussion group talking about ourselves. We touched on personal interests, hobbies, hometowns, why we came to the College, and how we first learned of the Great Books program. While I enjoyed hearing all about my new colleagues, the thing that gave me the best idea of who they were and what they were looking for was their “HUMS story”.

Personally, the first time I heard about the Bachelor of Humanities program at Carleton I was at a dining room table across from a childhood friend several years my senior, and we were surrounded by our respective families. This friend of mine went on to give a rave review of the program he was applying to at Carleton. As I was then in grade nine, I was anxious to begin planning my academic future and listened to him with rapt attention. The program sounded as if it was heaven sent. Not to wax too poetic, but while all of my high school friends were thinking vaguely of pursuing mathematics, engineering or the sciences, a degree encompassing my two greatest passions—English and history—sounded like a dream.

I attended information sessions about the Humanities for four years. That part of my story may not be the norm for all Humanities students, but hearing about the program via word of mouth is definitely a common experience. While our social media presence now casts a wider net for potential students, it is common for prospective students to learn about the program through a friend, employer, teacher or current HUMSCHUM.

To me, this speaks to the intimate and communal nature of the College. At times I simply find myself captivated by the little slice of academic paradise we have carved out of the world. From holding our own formal to producing our own literary journal, Humanities students build upon each other just as the subject matter we study builds upon the foundation of the previous years.

We recently held one of our most popular events, “Fight Night,” which is a series of debates between year representatives and professors. I slipped into the lecture hall for several minutes to watch and was struck by how many people were present. It reminded me of how connected the Humanities program is and how what we experience in our program is special. As laughter roared and debating reigned, the memory of that first discussion group was called to my mind. I thought about how despite the differences in peoples’ “HUMS stories,” one key element was present throughout: a desire to be part of something greater than ourselves, to be a part of the Humanities legacy. The more I learn, the more I love the Humanities program, and I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. But that’s my “HUMS story.” What will yours be?