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On Friday March 18, I attended a symposium marking the launching of WFU’s new Humanities Institute.

Because students are the reason we’re all here, the organizers made a deliberate and significant decision to open the symposium with a student panel discussion, on the topic “Perspectives on the future of the humanities at Wake Forest.”

The panel consisted of five students, whose majors and minors represented not only the traditional humanities disciplines of literature and history, but also anthropology, psychology, chemistry, and economics. Helps explain why our LIB250 course (Humanities research) has, since its inaugural semester, attracted significant numbers of students majoring in the sciences and social sciences.

Some of the students’ more striking insights:

  • A student planning to pursue a career in neuroscience described how her work with homeless communities as part of a medical anthropology course made her aware of the importance of culture as a driving force behind scientific initiatives to enhance quality-of-life issues.
  • Many students forget to ask “Why”? “How can my research make a difference in the world?” Humanities can answer these questions.
  • A second student also planning to go into medicine cited the Kantian notion of treating people as ends in themselves: her study of narrative, and the concept of types (characters in literature, film, etc.) led to the insight that the humanities militate against typing people. This can help doctors avoid the trap of stereotyping their patients, and the limiting of the doctor/patient relationship that results.
  • One student had been exposed to scholarly arguments holding that current popular culture (films, magazines, etc.) are sufficient means by which to know the world and people. The student learned, through her studies in the humanities, that this is not the case.
  • One student cited the all-important factor of context: humanities fill the gaps in perception between science, politics, religion, etc.
  • Economics are “cultivated” by the humanities.
  • One student who as a freshman was reluctant to venture into humanities studies noted how exposure to philosophy, Classics, film studies, etc. “makes you restless.” It changed his focus from a didactic “me teaching you what I think” to a more reflective “me learning from you what you think.”

The moderator, Prof. David Phillips, asked the panel what they wanted to see from the Humanities Institute in the future. Some responses:

  • A number of students are resistant to humanities (“why should my money go to support a student studying some obscure 17th-century poem?”). The Institute can help change such attitudes.
  • All students, whether they know it or not, engage in reflection. Pop songs, for instance, reflect on the question “What is love?” The Institute could “modernize” humanities studies by explicitly demonstrating connections of this nature.
  • Interdisciplinary courses co-taught by instructors from different disciplines (“Schopenhauer and Wagner”, taught by a philosopher and a music scholar — “why not philosophy and physics?” asked the student) are particularly valuable.

Finally, one panelist admitted that, in contrast to others who had experienced a dramatic “aha” moment, his own appreciation of the humanities had developed slowly over his three years at Wake. He advised instructors who feel frustration when students seem not to “get it” — “try, try again”!