Understanding our subtle similarities
Contemporary fiction writer and MacArthur Genius Grant recepient George Saunders spoke at Harris Hall on May 6 as part of the Contemporary Thought Speaker series. In a Q-and-A discussion, he discussed the sex appeal of mineral engineering students, the role of a university in moral discourse and the subtle similarities between the humanities and technological fields.
What I found interesting about this discussion was the idea of morality as something not to be dismissed in an academic setting. As Saunders said, college is about trying to become not only “better people,” but also “kinder people.” The school from which I graduated instilled in me a compulsion to hold doors for my elders and address adult men and women as “sir” and “ma’am.” My Illinoisan mother encouraged me to break these habits before venturing outside of Virginia, in order not to offend those who might associate such forms of address with old age. Her advice has proved sound, but I remain grateful to my school for instilling me with a set of core values.
Although customs such as standing every time an adult enters the room should be left in elementary school classrooms, since college students (arguably) are themselves adults, I agree with Saunders that perhaps the best educational philosophy is to “let everything in.” There is no harm in discussing what makes someone a good citizen, without forcing them to adopt certain behaviors. I think that the role of the university in this process is fostering an environment in which students can have a moral discourse and discuss what it means to be a part of a community, when “social networking” occurs on LinkedIn and Facebook, and communication transpires inside inboxes.
Alongside his assertions of the importance of education, the humanities and the arts, Saunders stressed the importance of reconciling these areas of study with more technological fields. He cited similarities between the two, comparing his own revision process to coding—a skill that he learned as an engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines. Throughout the discussion, Saunders never seemed to privilege one realm over another, even calling out humanities students for an occasionally “hackneyed view of corporate life.” Instead, he encouraged the audience to abandon “the fog that comes with ambition,” drop “lame” assumptions, and to develop a familiarity with those in other fields.
These words seem especially applicable to Northwestern, a university at which students in the humanities and students in the STEM fields attend classes on opposite ends of campus. However, I see a great deal of crossover at this school as well—engineering students with concentrations in RTVF, and French majors pursuing pre-med. The sheer number of areas of study that we can pursue, and the ease with which most of us can pursue more than one of those areas attracted me to Northwestern in the first place. The more we are able to explore a variety of fields, the more we are able to understand each other, to undergo the “self-enlargement” Saunders mentioned, and to accomplish great things as a student body.
The bridgeable gap
How little I expected George Saunders — exalted representative of “Contemporary Thought” — to give the following piece of salient advice: Get out of your own head. And how glad I am that he did.
Saunders was the second speaker who I watched address the question, “Because you’ve done both: science or humanities?” When this duality was brought up, the crowd’s questions started coming with increasing desperation. “If we did indeed get these two groups [science and liberal arts students] together, what common ground could we find to interest them both?” asked an audience member.
A turning point occurred when engineer Blake Mandell raised his hand and addressed his peer: “We are all people. We all like food. We [engineers] make things in the physical world and you make non-physical things.”
Early in his talk, Saunders spoke fondly of an image he once held of himself going to college. He didn’t know what he would be doing but he knew he would be in a sweater. But what did the sweater look like? Moderator Nathan Hedman pointed out that students of the liberal arts, who sip their coffee in Unicorn Cafe doubles all over America, have more holes in their sweaters than engineers do. It was suddenly clear that the problem the audience was responding to — this unbridgeable gap between science and humanities — was not about the learning we do but the identities that we take on.
Recognizing this, Saunders asked us to imagine a college without majors, where coursework promotes intellectual rigor, whether in reference to poems or proofs. Education, he explained, is about the process. It’s about discovering the depth of our own consciousness. Our focus on the image of our disciplines just gets in the way of this. How would it feel to not have those? He described it as “doing away with the hardened thinking of who we are.” It is our labeling minds that create this artificial distance between self and other, physicist and philosopher.
I have spent a lot of time inside my own head, seeking a position among these identities. I will say, without shame, that choosing a major was certainly as much about finding a well-fitting sweater as an engaging course load. I finally stumbled into journalism as a sophomore because I saw it as an opportunity to learn about different things all the time, as a way of rejecting the sweater all together. (Though even this I know isn’t true. I once heard a friend say she is studying journalism because she loves the image of herself on a dusty porch somewhere holding a big camera.) Occasionally I still relapse and browse the course catalog, inventing theoretical major-minor combinations that I could have pursued. It’s never because I don’t like journalism. Rather, it is me indulging in fantasies about what different person these majors would have made me become.
But next time I do, I must remind myself of Saunders’ cautioning against these invented limitations. In talking about both his writing and his realizations, he veers away from the cerebral and into the visceral. He said the fatal flaw of his editing process is when he thinks too much, when he works from a place of “This is a story about patriarchy.” From his hand gestures, it seems that Saunders instead finds his answers at the point where his stomach meets his chest. With hands clenching fists full of air, he reached outwards from that spot and urged us to find our power and our energy.