Letter to the Editor: Liesl Schwabe
To the Editor and the YU Community:
In response to Avi Strauss’ recent article (“Are the Humanities Disappearing on Campus?”), I will start by commending him for establishing some context that I hope we use to ask pointed, if complex questions, individually and collectively, about what college is and why we are here.
In her 2015 elegy of neurologist Oliver Sacks, writer Michiko Kakutani explained that it was “no coincidence that so many of the qualities that made [him] such a brilliant writer are the same qualities that made him an ideal doctor: keen powers of observation and a devotion to detail [and] deep reservoirs of sympathy….” The year after Sacks’ death, I kept this remembrance of him taped outside my office, often stopping on my way back from the copy machine to reread it.
For as trite as it may sound, those words served as a reminder – in part for how I aspired to teach (detail, sympathy), but more so for why I aspired to teach. I taught (and still teach) writing. And I teach writing because I believe that how you write reflects how you are in the world: how you can be both empowered and humbled, how you can come to understand your own interdependence, and how you can make use of your own unique perspective. Teaching writing, therefore, has been not only how I hoped to equip students to more clearly embrace the potential of their own voices, teaching writing has also been how I hoped to encourage students to be more attentive in general.
If you have taken First Year Writing with me, you will not be surprised to see me invoke the words of Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum, who has articulated three urgent and timely “capacities,” essential for the “survival” of democracy, all of which are fostered by the study of the liberal arts. Firstly, Nussbaum claims, each citizen has the responsibility of self-examination, which includes the willingness to reason, to question, and to doubt, all of which happens in academic inquiry and all of which can translate into resisting autocracy and collectively rallying against cruelty. Furthermore, by studying subjects such as history and literature, Nussbaum maintains, we can also develop what she calls “narrative imagination.” In other words, by learning about people separated from ourselves by time or geography or the economic schisms of our own city, we stand to better recognize our shared humanity. In addition, Nussbaum encourages students to draw on their education to inform their sense of “global citizenship.” Regardless of your political views, there’s no denying that we live in multinational world, where cross-cultural communication and cooperation are more essential than ever. I whole-heartedly agree with Nussbaum, and I encourage students who have not previously encountered her writing to take her ideas into consideration.
But I especially agree with Nussbaum as a result of my work with YU students. Over the last decade of teaching, I’ve learned a lot, and one thing I know for sure is that you guys work really hard. Time and again, I have been so impressed by how responsible and determined YU students are, grounded in rich tradition but always with an eye toward the future. (To be frank, I often wish I would have had half the foresight at your age.) But my point is this: I have no doubt that the vast majority of YU students will go on to have meaningful, productive, and lucrative careers. But no matter how much you work, how much you like your work, or how much money you want to make, you owe it to yourself to not only think of yourself as a future employee. And, quite frankly, you owe it to everyone else, too.
There will be many hours of your life not spent at your desk. And in between or in addition to taking care of your families and enriching your communities, you will often be in the company of your own mind. Your years as an undergraduate can be essential in helping make sure that you are a person with whom you want to spend time. To that end, whether through your Core requirements or through a possible Major in the Humanities, you have the opportunity to learn about, reflect on, and participate in this world we share, all of which can meaningfully impact your understanding of that world – at your job, but also in your life.
At age 81, when Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal cancer, he wrote an essay confronting the suddenly close end of his own life. “Above all,” he wrote, “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” I make the case for the Humanities with these words in mind, along with the reminder, after all, that Sacks’ most important work was as a doctor. I’m grateful to all my students, over the last ten years, who have enriched my own time as a sentient being. What I wish for you in turn is that you arm yourselves for all the beauty and all the sorrow to come with the curiosity and the responsibility that the adventure demands.
YC Writing Program Director