Every day, I feel immense gratitude for the humanities education I received at Harvard, Columbia, and Brown, and I try as much as possible to pass on my passion for the liberal arts to my students in the Sultanate of Oman. Whether I find myself teaching Harvard students or the future leaders of the Middle East, I can't help but feel that if there is one thing the world needs more than ever -- it is a greater commitment to education and the creativity, critical thinking skills, and spirit of collaboration that the arts and humanities inspire. I've felt tempted lately to add my voice to the growing chorus of essays on the importance of the humanities in a globalized world, but I thought it might be better to let one of my Omani students speak for herself. The following essay was written by Azzah Ali Saif Al Mamari, who took my Studies in the Essay class at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman this spring. I am sharing it with her permission.
"So is English literature your first choice as a major?" In the summer of 2012, my extended family and friends asked me this question about a million times after I was accepted at Sultan Qaboos University. Over and over again, I told them: "Yes, English literature is my first choice as a major" -- since I considered reading books and studying literature an academic and personal pursuit of the highest order. While they said it was great that I was choosing a major that I adored, their tone and forced facial expressions indicated otherwise.
I smiled, nodded, and listened politely to what they had to say. But what I really wanted to say was: WHAT IS WRONG WITH CHOOSING ENGLISH LITERATURE? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ACTUALLY CHOOSING A MAJOR THAT I ENJOY?
Four years now into university, I am still asking myself this question. It seems that there is some sort of misconception regarding literature and the humanities in general. People tend to believe that these kinds of majors are not beneficial for future purposes. They believe that there is no defined career path or promise of a good future for a humanities major. They also assume that these majors do require a lot of hard work and effort. They quickly diminish the humanities as being unimportant, a waste of time, and inferior to the so-called "scientific majors." This notion is unfortunately common everywhere, as the humanities are becoming marginalized throughout the world.
I try hard not to get defensive when people's body language and tone of speech shift after I tell them that I am a literature major. I try hard not to get defensive when people ask me in a somewhat judgmental manner what job will I have in the future. I try hard not to get defensive when my friends ask me whether literature actually requires any studying. I try hard not to get defensive...I try hard...I really really do. But it's exhausting. So for all of those who judge and marginalize literature students, I would like to tell you that you are underestimating us. Because while you may know how to fix X, we literature students understand life in all its astonishing complexity.
As a literature student in Oman, I have travelled across centuries and all around the world. I have stepped into the mindsets of former American slaves and World War I survivors and heard the cries of oppressed Egyptian women from the past. I have met an assortment of characters, such as Romeo, Elizabeth Bennet, Edna Pontellier, and Willy Loman from the poetry, plays, and novels that my courses have to offer. I have come to understand the historical and cultural backgrounds for each literary work I have encountered. I have learned how to write creatively and delve deep into my emotions in hopes of touching the reader and making a lasting impression.
Now I know how to consider both sides of the coin rather than seeing just one dimension. For example, in my American literature course, I studied autobiographies of both anti-slavery and pro-slavery writers like Booker T. Washington and Jefferson Davis. Moreover, I can now tackle the difficult task of analyzing a particular character, theme, symbol, poetic device, or narrative technique. I can read between the lines and formulate my own opinions, as opposed to merely memorizing definitions and equations. I can think for myself.
So after reviewing all these skills that English literature students are taught, can a person really question the importance of humanities majors and disregard us as useless or unskilled?
I am not saying that scientific majors are not important. On the contrary, we do need doctors, engineers, scientists, and technicians so the world can keep going round. However, we also need humanities students -- and specifically literature majors. It is we, after all, who are taught about humanity and what it means to be human.
We literature students really can bring our share to the world. We can bring the skills of empathy, interpretation, and understanding that we were taught to make the world a better place. This is the reason why literature should be considered as equally important as all the scientific majors, and people should respect it more, rather than dismiss it.
"So is English literature your major?" With a gleam in my eye, I am very proud to say yes. English literature is my major. I can't think of a better way to understand myself and the world.