Guest Post by Dr. Christine Schott: Why the Humanities (Still) Matter

This piece by Assistant Professor of English Dr. Christine Schott appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Inside Erskine magazine. We think she makes a compelling case for why the humanities continue to be relevant to today’s college students.

Dr. Schott visited the Isle of Skye this summer as part of her ongoing research into medieval manuscripts and texts.

Dr. Schott visited the Isle of Skye this summer as part of her ongoing research into medieval manuscripts and texts.

English majors dread being asked what they will do with their degree. Literature professors always say, “You can do anything with an English degree,” and that’s true. But it leaves English majors with no clear path into any one field.

This apparent disconnect between degree and career path applies to almost all of the humanities majors—what do you do with a B.A. in history, religion, or philosophy? This has led a practical-minded, vocal sector of the public to question the value of the humanities and even of the liberal arts in general. But as a literature professor, I continue to believe that the humanities are not only still relevant in today’s world but may be more important than ever.

English majors, for example, graduate with skills vital to success in any number of fields. They learn, most importantly, to write cogently and communicate clearly both in speech and in print. They learn to look beyond surface rhetoric to analyze motives, biases, and far-reaching implications of what seem at first to be simple situations.

These students learn to synthesize information, reconcile conflicting viewpoints, and think outside the box; in other words, they become problem solvers. Despite recent negative press about the humanities, both media and employers are gradually coming forward to point out that humanities majors are desirable in a wide variety of fields—especially in leadership—because they have these vital transferrable skills.

But humanities majors have more to offer the world than their services as employees. I point out to my students that studying literature makes them better consumers (because they learn to recognize bias in advertisement), better citizens (because they learn to cut through political rhetoric), and better human beings (because they learn what it actually means to be human).

Find yourself thinking the poor are just lazy and ignorant? Read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Having a hard time understanding why anybody would hold to a system of beliefs different from yours? Read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Think technology alone has the potential to solve the world’s problems? Read just about anything by Orson Scott Card or Ray Bradbury — or for that matter, watch the Terminator movies; film and literature are just different forms of the same endeavor.

Reading literature changes us: it might make us angry by exposing injustices that we had previously been able to ignore, or it might make us uncomfortable by challenging our assumptions about right and wrong, “us” and “them,” but it makes it impossible for us to stay the same. Once you see the humanity of people you had never thought about before, it becomes a lot harder to hate them. And when it becomes harder to hate, then it becomes easier to care. And if there’s one thing this war-torn, contentious world has too few of, it is people who care for others, even those they do not know, simply because we are all human.

I am not saying that every student should be an English or humanities major; not everyone enjoys history or literature (a fact that continues to mystify me, although I may be a little biased). But for those students whose souls are called out of their bodies by beautiful words, for those who forget to eat because they are so deeply involved in a history book, or for those who forego sleep because they’re asking the big questions that were raised in their philosophy class, it would be a shame to abandon what they love simply because someone else has told them it isn’t “relevant.”

The truth is that a humanities education is beneficial in every life calling, from stay-at-home parent to president of the United States.

English majors do not need to defend their course of study to make it relevant; it already is. And they do not need to change their major to be employable; they only need to augment it. There is no fundamental conflict between the humanities and “practical” education. In fact, in the coming generation, I hope we will see the liberal arts increasing in cultural and market value as employers, educators, and students alike recognize how much the world still needs the humanities.

Living Abroad and Thanksgiving in Spain

Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy a scrumptious Thanksgiving meal on the Mediterranean

There is just nothing like living in another country to broaden one’s perspective. Since arriving in Spain, I’ve discovered that almost everything—from gestures and language to packaging in the grocery store—is a little bit different. It’s one thing to read about and study other countries; it’s something entirely different to daily encounter little differences that cause you to scratch your head and say, “oh…but I thought everyone did it this way”. For example, I enjoyed a delicious vegetable stew the other day, prepared by my wonderful host mother, only to discover (with a shudder, I’ll admit) that that “unusual” soup ingredient that she’d mentioned and which I’d eaten with relish was blood sausage. (It was probably for the best, because, had I known what morcilla was beforehand, I highly doubt that I would have enjoyed my meal so immensely.) When Puri saw the look of disconcerted comprehension dawn on my face as I looked up the
word for said dish after lunch, she calmly explained how black pudding is made and pointed out that we eat far more questionable animal products in the form of hotdogs and hamburgers. She’s quite right, of course, and it’s been interesting to think since, in light of that experience, about how the “psychology of food” works.

Allison and Cassie with the mashed potatoes!

Now, don’t get me wrong—when I say that Spain is “different”, I don’t mean to imply that it’s dramatically different from the US. As in most modern, developed countries, houses, clothing styles, transportation, and the amenities of life are all about the same, with the one exception in Alicante being the absence of heating and air in houses. You see, since the weather here is rarely extreme, there really isn’t all that much need for AC and heat. Even so, I confess that I sorely felt the lack of air conditioning during my first couple of weeks here. As the seasons have changed, though, and it’s become a bit chillier, the absence this particular amenity has been really made me think. Perhaps having buildings toasty warm—almost to the point of discomfort—inside makes our bodies less able to adapt to seasonal changes of temperature? Being without heating and air has also made me realize how often I flip a switch when I feel hot or cold when really, I could sim
ply put on warmer clothing or drink some iced water and get the same effect in a more economic and environmentally-friendly way.

The table set for Thanksgiving at the home of our beloved professors, Armando and Cynthia

Call me a comfort-loving American (guilty as charged), but when I was first adjusting to life in Spain, the idea of not being able to control the temperature of my surroundings whenever I wanted was rather disconcerting. However, as I’ve seen that yes, it is quite possible to live comfortably—albeit in an area with a mild climate—without heating and air, I’ve also become much more sensitive to body-temperature phenomena like these: Cold? Solution: more clothing, hot tea, and/or blankets. Hot? Solution: don’t drink hot tea, wear cool clothing, and sit outside in the breeze. All that isn’t to say that I’m going to stop using heat when I go home (hardly)…but the experience of living in an area where almost no houses even have a heating and air system installed in them has certainly made me more thoughtful about the way I view stewardship and the way in which something I consider a necessity may actually only be an unexamined habit of living. Really, then, as in a
ll areas of life, when it comes to our expenditure of energy, balance is the key; and I think I’ll return home a bit more balanced.

Another “little” difference that is obvious but which still struck me as odd at first is the absolute absence of a vitally important holiday, which is celebrated by festivities all around the world (right?)…yes, Thanksgiving. Well of course no one in Europe (or anywhere else in the world except in the US, for that matter) commemorates the first thanksgiving meal held by the pilgrims in the New World out of gratitude to the Lord for his provision. In fact, if you type the word “Thanksgiving” into (the Spanish version of Google, which automatically appears in place of when one is in Spain), you will immediately pull up perfectly natural questions like “¿Qué es Thanksgiving?” (“What is Thanksgiving?”) and the subsequent explanation. In fact, I just had a conversation with my elevator friend (dubbed thusly because she’s a delightful former teacher whom I always seem to bump into in the elevator in our apartment), and she was under the impres
sion that Thanksgiving was the American version of Christmas. My mother was also quite surprised to hear that, today, November 24th, was the day of my final exam for one of my classes. I will be celebrating the holiday this afternoon, however, by having a Thanksgiving meal with my study abroad group at the home of our esteemed professor, Armando. I’m also going to attempt to make buttermilk biscuits without real buttermilk (which, like cranberries, doesn’t seem to be sold here in Alicante) and using an entirely different system of measurements. So I think I’ll need 440 grams of flour?


It was Mr. Green in the ballroom with the wrench!

Although the big fall play finished a couple of weeks ago, the semester was not over for the theatre department.  As a member and president of Erskine’s Alpha Psi Omega – a national honorary fraternity for theatre – I get to be involved in planning and carrying out other theatrical events in addition to plays.  This past week, for example, Alpha Psi Omega hosted a self-created murder mystery, the first ever edition of Clue: Erskine Edition.

Since the beginning of the semester the seven of us members have been planning this event, which is more complicated than you might think.  Luckily, one of our members, Bryce, took a class on detective fiction last J-term, so he took the lead in putting together the mystery.  We had to start by figuring out how to structure the game, give clues, and all the details of location, date, etc.  We ended up using many of the ideas of the game to set it up, as well as taking some from the Clue movie.

We set up six of the classic rooms from the board game in the areas surrounding Lesesne auditorium – the ballroom, study, lounge, library, dining room, and billiard room – and hid five of the six weapons throughout the rooms (the missing one being the murder weapon).  We had the six participating teams of students rotate throughout the six rooms, interviewing the six suspects who were stationed one in each room.  We also had clues hidden in the rooms, and through the interrogations of the characters the teams gained information to help them find the killer.

Six of the seven Alpha Psi Omega members played the main characters, the seventh being the butler (of course!).  We all dressed in black with accents of our color; I, for example, was the flighty and affluent Mrs. Peacock, and wore a blue hat and scarf over my black dress, along with some peacock feather earrings that I borrowed from a friend.  We also enlisted the help of five other members of the theatre department to play characters such as Mr. Boddy, the maid, the cook, etc.  All of us adopted ridiculous, melodramatic characteristics, playing up our roles to make it more fun.  We had an opening skit to introduce all of the characters and the plot, and after a group had submitted the correct suspect, weapon, and room of the murder, we closed with a dramatic final scene and awarded the prize money.

Overall it was a great experience; though there were difficulties in working out some of the logistics, we all greatly enjoyed it – both the actors and the participants.  It went over so well that many students have said they would love to play again, so we hope to do a sequel in the spring!

Musings in Spain

One thing I’ve loved about being in Spain has been the relatively extensive amount of time I have here to read, study, and contemplate. Granted, I miss all of the Erskine fellowship, activities, and other commitments that fill my time when I’m at school in the US. It’s been quite refreshing, however, to have a season much more conducive to studying certain topics more deeply, with the time to follow intellectual rabbit trails that peak my interest. At the moment, for example, I’m reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a 6th century work of philosophy that had a huge impact on the development of the Western tradition and is referenced by later authors like Dante and Chaucer. Although this ancient work of philosophy in not written from a specifically Christian perspective, God is often referenced, and I’ve been fascinated to note how closely much of the wisdom contained therein parallels the truths of Scripture.

This weekend, a friend from Erskine who's currently studying at Oxford came to visit me and Lisa! We had fun, and we even made time to go to the Alicante "mercadillo" (Saturday market), pictured here.

It has also been interesting to note how pertinent Boethius’s musings are to the twenty-first century world of pluralism and moral relativism in which we live. For example, he declares that, “If God exists, whence comes evil? Yet whence comes good, if He exists not?” Here, in this sixth century classic, a philosopher wrestles with the problem of evil, which a number of friends her in Spain have pointed to as a reason for disbelief. And yet, Boethius concludes that, yes, the fallen nature of our world is puzzling; but that, apart from some outside standard, our innate concept of “good” and “evil” makes no sense. If there is no God, we have no ground to stand on from which to condemn heinous acts, and this absence of an outside standard would inevitably lead to nihilism if we were intellectually honest.

Joseph, Lisa, and I enjoyed catching up over coffee...three friends talking about Due West, SC in a Spanish panadería. Who would've thought?

Boethius also remarks that, “whenever a man by proclaiming his good deeds receives the recompense of fame, he diminishes in a measure the secret reward of a good conscience”, which echoes the Scriptural truth that, “when [we] give to the needy”, we are “not [to] announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Mark 6:2). I also love the beauty of the author’s words as he addresses Lady Philosophy, albeit in the midst of his distress over being unjustly accused of treason: “Is this the library, the room which thou hadst chosen as thy constant resort in my home, the place where we so often sat together and held discourse of all things in heaven and earth? …thou didst trace for me with thy wand the courses of the stars, moulding the while my character and the whole conduct of my life after that patter of the celestial order…”

Anyway, back to Spain. A troubling dilemma that I’ve encountered since arriving is the question of how much I can reasonably cart back to the US. Namely, how many books will fit in my suitcase, along with all of my clothing and other necessities (oh, and a souvenir or two), without pushing it over the highly unrealistic weight limit (*cough*, please don’t report me to American Airlines). I empathize greatly with a remark of Ben House’s that I read the other day on the one of my favorite blogs, the Grantian Florilegium. This is his confession: “I start more books than I finish. I buy more than I start. I forget much of what I read… Mornings begin with reading and coffee. My light cannot go out without at least a few minutes to read at the end of the day. Beside my bed stand a dangerous leaning tower—the great mass of unfinished volumes looming over my bed.” I just hooted when I read this, because—as my family will tell you—I’m the same way. The only problem
is that I cannot realistically transport a mini-library across the Atlantic Ocean in my limit-of-fifty-pounds suitcase. My solution? I’ve borrowed books and gone to the library. Of course, as with Ben, my bibliophilic enthusiasm has rather outstripped my ability to read rapidly (especially in Spanish). Consequently, I have far more books in my room at the moment than I can possibly finish in a semester…and I only have four weeks left. I can hardly believe it! How time does fly.

A few of the books on my shelf...

Preparing for the Holidays

School work seems to get harder as the holidays round the corner. I guess this is because all I can think about it turkey, ham, Christmas trees, and football. Therefore, as the weeks near Thanksgiving break, I feel like I am racing to the finish line. During this time and the holiday fever that can get to us all, it is important, however, to remember the purpose behind the holidays. Aside from the family time and great food that accompany them, it is important to remember and serve others during this special time of year.

As I am doing my teaching field experience in a second grade classroom this semester, it is a requirement that we implement a service learning unit with our students. This involves teaching students about service in connection with the traditional academic subjects through the implementation of a service project. Because so many of my children have indicated ways they like to directly help others, we decided to serve others through Operation Christmas Child. This program supported by Samaritan’s Purse assists children in need at Christmastime by proving shoeboxes full of toys and necessities to them during the holidays. Ranging from over sixty different countries, this program truly shows how one person can make a difference.

As I taught the students about the different countries, about sending money to help with shipping, and how to write letters to send in the boxes, I think they taught me just as much about compassion. These young second graders served as a great reminder of the simplicity of life and how a smile can brighten one’s day. These sweet children offered gifts from their own hearts, and often their own closets, as their way of contributing to the project. Often bringing in items that could not be sent, such as a VHS tape of Old Yeller, I assured them that I would find a place to donate their gifts. This students did not think twice about offering of themselves which is something that us adults could use a reminder of sometimes. As these children expressed their joy in serving because they could help others who are in need, I could not help but smile. Aside from explaining to a few why Santa couldn’t provide all of the things the children needed, this project proved to be a s
imple success with the students. I thank them for reminding ME how wonderful it can feel to serve others by giving of ourselves. Therefore, I challenge you this holiday season to find a way to help another, either through a special gift, or a simple smile.

So many concerts, so little time.

This week has been full to bursting with not only classes, tests, and the normal business, but also many musical events – five in the last week!

To begin it all, last Saturday night my conducting class took a field trip to the Augusta Symphony.  Our professor Dr. Nabholz – who is also the director of the Choraleers – met us there, and we enjoyed an evening of four varied pieces by Barber, Takemitsu, Higdon, and Bernstein.  One of the highlights of the evening came after the concert, when we got to go backstage and meet the conductor, Shizuo “Z” Kuwahara!  It was exciting to be able to talk for a few minutes with someone who is making his living in the “real” world in music, and to be able to see a lot of what we discuss in class applied.  The entire evening was great fun, though, from the hour and a half drive to and from (especially the GPS troubles), to discussions of the concert as a class – the five of us and our professor – over frozen yogurt after the event.

My conducting class after returning to Erskine from the Augusta Symphony.

After the weekend, the week of concerts began.  Monday started with Erskine’s music department hosting a concert by Winthrop’s chorus; we began the event with Erskine’s Choraleers singing a few selections, then we let them take over the stage and sing several of their pieces.  As with the Intercollegiate Choral Festival the week before, it was rewarding and enjoyable to share music with and get to meet another college choir, especially in our own auditorium!

Tuesday night we hosted a Czech string quartet – the Talich Quartet.  They are professionals who are internationally recognized for their talents, and this showed – the concert was absolutely brilliant!  I do love string instruments, and their selections were well-chosen and exquisitely played.

Wednesday was the night off, and Thursday we co-hosted an organ recital with First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.  Our organist was Dr. Craig Cramer from Notre Dame University, who demonstrated his great skill and experience on the instrument in the variety of styles of the pieces that he chose, as well as his expression in playing them.

Finally, Friday was a concert at home featuring our instrumental chamber groups and the Women’s Chorale.  Although we have more vocal than instrumental students in the department, it is always great to see what the latter can do!  None of the ensembles featured in the concert were very large – Women’s Chorale being the largest, at around a dozen – but they all showed that you do not necessarily need a large choir or symphony to make a great sound.

No one can say that there is nothing to do on campus on week nights!

Time for Senior Seminar

                I cannot believe that almost four years have flown by!  I have been working so hard the past few weeks to complete my Senior Seminar presentation.  I am chemistry major so; we also have to complete a Junior Seminar which includes a presentation and a paper.  I chose to keep the same topic from my Junior Seminar for my Senior Seminar.  My topic for my seminar is the use of Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide Receptor Anatagonists to treat migraines.  I know this sounds like a complicated topic but, it is very interesting!  The seminar classes that Erskine offers for selected majors are very helpful when you are preparing for the next step.  Whether that next step is a career or graduate school, you will have to give a presentation or speak in front of a group of your peers and superiors at some point.  These classes help students become more comfortable with their public speaking abilities.  My Senior Seminar pres
entation went great! I am so glad that it is over and now I only have to finish the paper portion!  This is a picture of the CGRP receptor which was the basis of my presentation.