This holiday season i happened into a conversation with two men – one with a PhD (i think?) in sustainable design and another working at Microsoft. We were chatting about graduate school, people we knew in graduate school, etc. What struck me was that while i was gleefully explaining that it’s been the most soul-crushingly rewarding thing i’ve ever done, they viewed it as an entirely self-indulgent exercise. Well, the kind of graduate school i am doing is, anyway. You know, because i don’t actually do anything or make anything. “Yeah, i don’t get those people who do something really useless, like get a degree in 17th century French literature (*snort*)!”
It just so happened that i had been reading a book that morning about 17th century French literature for a paper i was writing about the erasure of women from political and military histories. He looked annoyed.
This is something that happens a lot in my world – even among the most delightfully liberal people i know. What i do is “meaningless” in their worldview. When i am introduced with my partner, he is always introduced with an emphatic “And he’s in law school!” *crickets* It finally stopped bothering me last year – i realize that people don’t value the kind of education i am getting.
A young student came to see me last week to talk about the conundrum of being in the social sciences. She came to do medical school (and i have encouraged her to not stop, but to find a way to do both), but discovered that there was so much she didn’t understand about the actual workings of doing something like global health. Her intention has always been to work in the global south – a goal that she has spent the past year questioning in all the ways you hope a student will. She struggles to feel like the social sciences are worth while – she knows somewhere in her deepest sense of being that it is important, but is struggling with not producing anything. I understand her difficulty – i often envy engineering students and nurses for their ability to actually do something.
I bring her up because i realized as i was talking to her what the difficulty for people is in our pursuits for knowledge and justice – that we are not properly neoliberal subjects. I realize that’s a very tired trope – but i think it very succinctly captures the inability for people to understand or appreciate what we do in the social sciences (you know, besides educating the next generations in things like critical thinking…). We are not producing something tangible in the sense that it is marketable, that it doesn’t turn a profit. Goodness knows that what we do is hardly profitable to us – but i mean that only in the monetary sense. It is profitable in so many other ways – ways that are meaningful in incalculable ways. Our value system is not attached to capitalism. What we do requires a fine balance of a healthy ego – feeling that we have something to say that is worth saying, are thinking something that is worth thinking, studying something that is worth studying – coupled with a sense of humility and humor.
That’s the first blow we all take, really – realizing that we’re not going to Single-Handedly Save the World. Instead, we are part of a much larger conversation – one that reaches far beyond our scope of understanding of a lifetime. We push to the radical extreme in the hopes that small incremental changes might begin to emerge. We pipe up with our tiny voices in the din of the cacophony, hoping to be heard. So yes, it makes sense that what we do doesn’t fit into the grand scheme of cost-effective – get-rich-quick – be-a-producer – make-a-difference-now kind of world that we live in. We are not making our 20 cent donations to end world hunger with every cup of coffee we drink. We are not Saving the World by sporting RED shirts. We’re not creating (yet another) NGO. What we do may or may not make a difference in even 100 years. But we hope and we work harder and we put more effort in and we keep trying.
Ye higher men, what think ye? Am I a soothsayer? Or a dreamer? Or a drunkard? Or a dream-reader? Or a midnight-bell?
Or a drop of dew? Or a fume and fragrance of eternity? Hear ye it not? Smell ye it not? Just now hath my world become perfect, midnight is also mid-day,—
Pain is also a joy, curse is also a blessing, night is also a sun,—go away! or ye will learn that a sage is also a fool.
Said ye ever Yea to one joy? O my friends, then said ye Yea also unto all woe. All things are enlinked, enlaced and enamoured,—
—Wanted ye ever once to come twice; said ye ever: “Thou pleasest me, happiness! Instant! Moment!” then wanted ye all to come back again!
—All anew, all eternal, all enlinked, enlaced and enamoured, Oh, then did ye love the world,—
—Ye eternal ones, ye love it eternally and for all time: and also unto woe do ye say: Hence! Go! but come back! For joys all want- eternity!
Thus Spake Zarathustra, 79.10