We are pleased to publish the full text of remarks given by Jillian Benedict, senior English and Creative Writing major and the featured speaker at the first annual Humanities Awards.
“It is a convenient truth,” says Damon Horowitz, Google’s Official Director of Engineering and In-House Philosopher. “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.” To me, these are the joys and rewards that come from being a student in the Humanities.
But it’s not easy being a humanities student. For most people, like my best friend, my choice to major in one of the humanities was like choosing diet over regular soda. The idea that I would rather spend my college years and parent’s money voluntarily studying the written word is mind-boggling to my friend. While I have met people who believe that the humanities are important, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that there were and still are a lot of people who found my choice less than impressive. This friend harassed me up until my junior year, concerned I wasn’t living up to my full potential studying English and creative writing. He thought I had hopped on the fast track to being a high school English teacher. Even though I have appreciated the concern from friends and family, worried about my financial future, I do not regret committing four years of my life to words. Naturally, I am concerned about earning money, but the thought of majoring in something like engineering or business or nursing just for the sake of financial stability never crossed my mind. Besides, from what I understand, money comes and goes and is always moving. I realized a few years ago that I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror if I had spent four years and forty-thousand dollars doing something I hated.
The decision to become a dual English and creative writing major was easy. I like to read and write and realized that I would much rather devote myself to those disciplines for the next four years than something my friends might consider more “practical.” As John Milton says, “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” (Aereopagitica 930). I couldn’t imagine not having read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Native Son, or (as time consuming as it was) Paradise Lost. Like all of the Humanities, English and creative writing opens me, and all of us, up to a new perspective on the human experience and where we belong in the span of human history. Unlike the next generation of iphones, literature is timeless.
Like most students, my passion for words was ignited by a high school teacher, actually a student teacher, who really opened me up to the ideas that would eventually become as important to me as breathing. I’m not sure if it was because he was excited about teaching his first real class or just naturally enthusiastic, but the day I walked into my sophomore honors English class and he basically recreated the tense atmosphere of 1984 by George Orwell, I realized that there was a level in books that I had never tapped into before. I became curious. English quickly became my favorite class. While I would hesitate to say I was like a fish in water, I was never as happy in any other class as I was in English from that year on. Even when I was harassed about my inadequate grammar skills by my AP English teacher Dr. Walters, he acknowledge that I had a mind for literature and despite my occasional C paper and unimpressive score on the AP test, it was my favorite class. A home away from home. When it came time to look at colleges, I knew that I would never be emotionally invested in anything else except English and creative writing.
In a world filled with technology and social media, remembering what a human connection feels like is more important than ever before. While it might seem contradictory for me to say that because I spend a large portion of my time alone in front of a book or computer screen and not in the presence of other people, English, history, philosophy, fine arts and modern languages all help me to figure out a little more about myself as a person and about mankind. It is in that way that we retain a human connection that we can forget about in our daily lives. Nothing gives me more of an adrenaline high than examining the narrative structure of William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude. Analyzing the importance of place in Thomas Mallon’s Two Moons and trying to write a novella about a young woman babysitting her teenage brother for a week may not sound like fun for some people, but the buzz of class discussion and workshop keeps me more invested in the world than I ever thought possible in high school.
The emphasis on discussion and interaction with other students and professors has really helped me develop not only as a student, but as a person. Where else can you talk about the first three books of Genesis as fiction or the limitations of language highlighted by the use poetry in The Girls of Slender Means? The small program size has allowed me to stay involved and allows for easy access to other disciplines like Art History and philosophy as well as opportunities to attend events around campus, making it easy to form bonds with my fellow humanities students. We are lucky in a way that other majors are not. Humanities students are exposed to so many different people and ideas so easily that our worlds expand far wider than the greater Philadelphia area. Like my professors have emphasized in the past, the humanities make you more than a college graduate, they make you more interesting person. I have to say, it shocks me when most of my friends don’t know much about Descartes, Manet or Bach. The skills we have learned and honed in the last few years may not appear to have a practical application like those developed by my friends in Engineering or Nursing, but they are always timely because even though we don’t deal with people as closely in daily life as people did even twenty years ago written and oral communication is still a crucial part of daily life. That is something I didn’t realize I would learn when I decided to become a humanities student. At the time, I didn’t even know that was a skill. I may not make as much money as my brother who majors in electrical engineering, but I have been happier these last four years studying what it means to be a person than I had ever thought possible. Looking back, I realize that if it hadn’t have been English or creative writing, I still would have ended up a humanities major. Not because I hate science and math, but because, like everyone else in this room, I’m interested in people. How we work, what we think and why it is we act the way we do.