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.