Perspective: An Ode to my BYU Major

Perspective: An Ode to my BYU Major

Martha C. Nussbaum

The following was published in Deseret News on January 20, 2024.

By Mariya Manzhos

During the four years I spent getting a bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, my befuddled parents asked me more than once what I was actually studying. What did this major called “humanities” entail and why was it worth paying tuition for? It didn’t help that my parents are Ukrainian and we struggled finding an equivalent to “humanities” in Russian and Ukrainian to help me explain what to them seemed like an irresponsible academic choice. 

What exactly would be my job upon graduation? they wondered. A marketing job, or maybe a job teaching languages? The truth is, I did not know myself.

In my classes, I learned about literary theory, read Plato and Shakespeare for the first time, listened to classical pieces and memorized the title and composer of each one. For my “Philosophy of Art” class, the first assignment was to write an essay answering: “What is Art?” While the practical application of these studies seemed abstract and distant, I was sure of one thing — I delighted in nearly every class and assignment. Humanities felt like a playground to explore and understand my own incoherent thoughts.

My college days of studying humanities almost 20 years ago sprang to mind this week when I read Martha Nussbaum’s essay about her visit to Utah Valley University last year.

Nussbaum, a philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago, had been invited to give a lecture on justice for nonhuman animals, the topic of her new book “Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility.” She wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that at UVU, she witnessed “one of the most heartening scenes in higher education that I have ever witnessed in my long career.”

An overflow crowd of about 150 people attended her lecture, where students contested her approach and thoughtfully engaged in the discussion, she wrote in the piece. She spoke as part of a required course, “Ethics and Values,” that’s supported through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and is funded by the state government. 

Over the past few years, budget cuts have shrunk humanities programs. West Virginia University laid off 76 people, including 32 tenured faculty members in areas of language and the arts, according to The New York Times. Other schools, such as the University of Alaska, North Dakota State University, Iowa State University and the University of Kansas, proposed cuts to their humanities programs.

Looking back at her experience at UVU, Nussbaum makes the case for humanities education and identifies three benefits of the “Ethics and Values” course (which includes the history of ethics, ethical theory and applied ethics) and humanities education in general.

First, students learn “skills essential for good citizenship in our polarized society: how to debate about fundamental matters with civility and respect, and how to examine themselves in Socratic fashion, asking why they hold the beliefs they do, and how strong the foundation for those beliefs is.”

Secondly, Nussbaum writes, students become more desirable employees, “because they have confidence in their own mental capacity and are relatively free from deference to mere fads.” Other benefits include “general problem-solving skills” applicable in a variety of fields and resulting in long-term success, she writes.

Finally, humanities students “exude confidence and pride in their lives.” The benefits go beyond the public sphere: “Their curiosity and newfound self-mastery is likely to sustain them through life’s vicissitudes and give them a deep inner world into which to delve when the going is tough,” Nussbaum writes. At her lecture, Nussbaum saw students filled with “inner joy” that, she writes, comes from “discovering yourself.”

After graduation, I leaned into that joy of self-discovery. I got a job in the fundraising office of an international nonprofit in Washington, D.C., which meant doing a lot of spreadsheets and going to a lot of parties. I met fascinating people from across the world and felt that I could get along with many of them right off the bat. I was curious about where they came from and what drove them to do their work.

This kind of outward orientation, I believe, was shaped by closely studying and analyzing  the plots and characters, and their different perspectives and motivations, in my college humanities classes. I eventually became a journalist and I continued to ask questions that attempt to get at what’s most important and true — the kinds of questions that shaped our conversations in BYU humanities classes.

While my parents remain puzzled by my choice to study humanities, they seem pleased by where that path has led me. I’m fully on board with Nussbaum’s case: Humanities education has immense value. It teaches us how to be thoughtful, a necessary skill today amid the noise of the internet, and how to be generous toward the viewpoints of others. Humanities invite us to set our egos aside so that we can begin to inhabit the joys and struggles outside of our own.

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January 22, 2024