The Humanities at Work


President Barbara R. Snyder

I write this message as Cleveland is amid its first city-wide humanities festival, a broad collaboration led by classicist Peter Knox, who joined the university last year as the Eric and Jane Nord Family Professor and director of the university's Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.

As you can see here, this year's keynote speaker was Jonathan Shay, a renowned psychiatrist and author who has used the stories of Achilles and Odysseus to illuminate the "moral injury" of war on veterans.

Shay, winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, earned his medical degree (as well as a doctorate in experimental neuropathology) after first majoring in an interdisciplinary social sciences program at Harvard University and completing all of his doctorate work in sociology except his dissertation at Columbia University. Along the way, he learned enough about Greek mythology to identify striking similarities between the accounts of Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders and descriptions of Achilles in Homer's the Illiad. More than 2,500 years later, Shay found, the Greek poet's writings could help doctors like him better understand and treat these patients.

Such observations become particularly trenchant in an era when hardly a week passes without a news story about challenges facing the humanities. In response, Professor Knox has launched a regular Baker-Nord panel series titled Humanities@Work. Under its auspices, professionals who majored in the humanities discuss how those studies affected their careers. One session featured physicians. Another, CEOs. Entrepreneurs, lawyers—all linked by the nature of their undergraduate disciplines and their subsequent ability to find career success outside them.

Many of our undergraduates already understand this point. We frequently find science and engineering majors pursuing a minor or even a second major in the humanities or social sciences. When asked why they choose to add to an already substantial workload, students typically offer two explanations. First, their interests are broad and they want to learn as much as they can while here. Second, intense study of two subjects often ends up enhancing their understanding of both.

In some instances, the multiple majors come within a discipline. The subject of our cover story, famed New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell, majored in music and English, and also minored in dance. Those who know him well quickly see the influence of his undergraduate study in his career today. His college dance professor speaks of caricatures revealing "that rhythm of line" Bachtell demonstrated in her course. Adds a close friend from college, "If you put on the right music, those figures would come to life easily."

The lessons of Shay, Bachtell and Knox's Humanities@Work speakers all share a common theme: People may not know precisely how the study of certain subjects may influence their professional lives, but the odds are high that the ultimate impact will be more relevant than they ever could have imagined.