“Studying the humanities is to study the human experience”

by Andrew Hull 12C

My initial motivation behind reading and studying philosophy was rather simple at first: I liked to argue and debate about ideas. My inner-city high school in Georgia thankfully had a great debate coach, and I found people on the team who enjoyed having arguments on not simply, for example, who the best team was in the NFL that year (the answer always obviously being the Chicago Bears) but also the social value of professional organized sports. This sometimes made me an annoyance to family and other circles of friends of course, but I possessed an inescapable urge to explore the underlying assumptions and beliefs behind otherwise mundane statements.

All this made a career in philosophy seem a rather natural choice for me, but I was always dogged by the same question that so many other aspiring humanities students face, “Well, what are you going to do with that”? “That”, of course, being a degree in the humanities. Despite the great increase in confidence in speaking and discussion that I was able to acquire through three years on my school’s policy debate team, I often times could muster no more than an eye-averting, awkward mumbled answer to that question; I would often say I was going to “teach…I guess.” The question does pose an interesting problem: how can we exactly compare what we wish to do to the careers so many other college-bound youth want to pursue such as law, medicine, science, or commerce? These other careers, no doubt, all carry great value in our society, but they all possess a more concrete, tangible value that does not rely on knowing who Anaxagoras was or why Edmund Wilson was one of America’s great men of letters. In policy debate matches, I could always answer questions during cross-examination on a variety of topics ranging from politics to international relations to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, but the question of what I was going to do with “that” bedeviled me.

It was because of the Fox Center that I was able to answer that question. I arrived at the Center in 2012 as an Undergraduate Honors Fellow, eager to continue my work on Plato’s Seventh Letter but still troubled about articulating the “utility” of my work. It was through the many engaging interdisciplinary discussions at the Fox Center and the focus on exploring the value of humanities in itself that I was able to more fully appreciate and articulate the importance of the humanities. Studying the humanities is to study the human experience, our condition in this transitory world, an enterprise that has a connection to other careers. For example, when a businessman or woman engages in high-stakes speculation you may hear people say a variety of ways: such activities are morally wrong and harmful to society; these people have a right to with their money as they please, regardless of society impact; or such speculation is necessary for society’s growth by a process of creative destruction.

All these answers, however, possess underlying views about what society both is and should be like, questions that, for the most part, the lawyer or scientist does not answer but which the humanities student attempts to answer, what I attempt to answer. It is the exploration of our collective and individual experiences of the world – along with our all too often unanalyzed assumption about the world and of each other – that is the great task of humanistic study. The Fox Center provided far more than “much needed office space” or a place to put my bust of Socrates while I worked. It provided a vibrant and diverse community of scholars that collectively made me more sure that an academic life was for me and more confident that the study of the humanities is as necessary as ever, a confidence and energy that have led me to recently complete a Master’s degree in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Oxford. I am sincerely thankful to all the staff and fellows at the Fox Center for all they have done for me and am truly grateful for the chance to be a part of such an invaluable community.

Advertisements