Useful useless things

By my second week at Emory I have dug myself in pretty well. The library is open 24 hours throughout the week and only closes for the night on Fridays and Saturdays, and what’s best is that I’ve got a private study here – so I can leave all my books open on the table and return to them the next day. I also got a membership to Emory’s olympic-grade sports center, though I am really only using the gym part. The whole campus is very convenient and nice – if a bit heavy on Roman aesthetics and pink marble for my personal tastes. It is also pretty much self-contained, as I found out when an overnight storm cut the power for what was apparently about 250 thousand people in this side of Atlanta for the better part of the whole day – with Emory campus simply powering up the generators in the hospital building and going on about its life as if nothing had happened. I’ve gotten into a good groove with reading and writing and am making a steady progress.

I have also gone to a few seminars and workshops (in anthropology), met up with a few professors to discuss my research – and everyone has been exceptionally friendly and forthcoming. Also, I couldn’t ask for a nicer weather – sunny days around 20C and balmy nights only a few degrees colder. It’s about nice as it gets in Estonia in the middle of the summer.

One interesting observation that I have made so far (and this by no means applies only to Emory) is how specialized people in the US academia – at least in humanities – appear to be. Knowing the strong standing of liberal arts curricula in the United States I somehow expected to find it evident everywhere, but in reality is is very rarely that you meet someone who would feel comfortable having a serious conversation outside of the narrow confines of their own specialization. And this doesn’t only apply to graduate students but also to professors, albeit to a lesser degree. People know their own stuff very well, but seem to lack even a passing familiarity with fundamental defining texts of other fields that are nonetheless related to their own – or indeed with texts that would be considered universally important across the different fields of humanities. Or even basic things such as a very general knowledge of the Greek mythology – and I am not talking about being able to name the muses, recount the genesis of furies, or know the differences between Promethean myth of Hesiod and that of Aeschylus – I am talking about PhD students in literature blatantly not knowing who Prometheus is or that he had something to do with fire and getting chained to the mountain.

But apparently these things do change. In late the antiquity and early middle ages one couldn’t be an intelligent and educated person without knowing the greek language – and nowadays we seem to be doing just fine without it. So maybe we can also afford to lose the knowledge of the Greek mythology from the canon and simply leave it to the specialists. Of course, specialization is good and to a certain extent inevitable – there is simply too much to know in order to be able to know everything. However, each of us going our separate specialized ways will also mean that we will lose the ability to talk and relate to each other, and that applies both within the academia and outside of it. And this may well be the reason why study some things that have no immediate practical and specific use – to study them because others do. So that we would share something beyond drinking the same coffee and wearing the same jeans.

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One thought on “Useful useless things

  1. Pingback: End the University as We Know It « ……random…noise……

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