The Humanities as Survival Skill

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

A few months ago, I had to move a bookcase from my apartment to my office.  It is only about a twenty minute walk but it is hard enough to walk through all the tourists on Fifth Avenue, let alone move a bulky object down the sidewalk.  The door to my office building at the Graduate Center faces directly onto the Empire State Building.  So I called Task Rabbit and arranged for a guy to come with a truck.  Clearly he was moonlighting, because he said it would be best if he came that Sunday afternoon. He was young, polite, energetic.  He picked up the bookcase, loaded it into the back of his pick up, and asked if I wanted to ride along. I hopped in beside him, in the front seat.

Of course we were instantly caught in a snarl of traffic that made the short trip much longer than it should have been so I asked this young man about himself.  We’ll call him Boris.  He was in his early twenties, an immigrant from the Ukraine, by way of Israel.

“Are you a student?”

“Eh, sort of.”

“What does ‘sort of’ mean?”

“I take some courses here and there, at Kingsborough Community College.”

“Such a beautiful campus!”  I exclaimed.  I told him that two of the students in my program at the Graduate Center teach at Kingsborough.  When we created the CUNY Map of NYC, their students posted photographs of a beach, right on the Kingsborough Campus that looked like some resort on Long Island Sound.  We could barely believe our eyes.  None of us had seen such a gorgeous campus setting.

Boris chuckled.  “It is beautiful,” he said, sheepishly. He admitted that sometimes he studied, sunbathing on the beach.

“Kingsborough’s a great college,” I said.  I’ve learned a lot about it from my students, the array of courses offered, the dedication of the faculty, the diversity of the student body, how hard working they are.

I asked him about his major.  His response was telling.  He said he really didn’t find any specific major that met his goal of helping him beome an entrepreneur.  His goal was to turn his one truck into a whole huge enterprise one day.  He wanted some day to own not just a fleet of trucks but many connected businesses, perhaps throughout the city, the country, the world.

“Actually, Kingsborough is  a great place.  I’m taking all the courses there I need to build my business.  But they don’t all fit in one place.”

“So you aren’t a business major?” I asked.

“Nah.  I took some accounting, and statistics, but I dropped those coures.  They were easy.  I knew everything in the text books.  I don’t need a degree so I just take the courses until I feel I have what I need and then I move on.  Mostly I take the classes where I can’t learn by myself, the things I have to have to succeed in America.”

I asked what those were.   He told me he was taking American history:  because this was not his country and, to really understand a new place, you had to understand its history.  He especially liked to be in a seminar class where students from all the different backgrounds would argue about everything together.  He said that is how he was coming to learn about America, what the issues were, what things you were allowed to talk about, what was too sensitive to talk about freely, what people censored, what they didn’t.

Another class he felt was essential for his business success was American literature, especially ethnic literature:  he wasn’t used to such a complicated ethnic mixture and he wanted to understand more about all the voices in this country.

He was taking Spanish, too,  because, although he spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Persian, Hebrew, and English, he knew that he would be working with and serving clients whose first language was Spanish so he was taking Spanish classes too.

He was taking expository writing, to improve his writing skills, English as a Second Language, and public speaking too, to help with his thick accent.

“It’s my business survival kit,” Boris said, and I could hear the pride.

“You realize all of the courses you are telling me about are considered ‘humanities,’” I said.  “Some people consider those to be useless.”

He looked at me like I had lost my mind.  I didn’t even need to trot out my English Prof’s litany of defenses for the importance of the humanities.

By then he’d turned his pick-up truck onto Fifth Avenue.  “What’s this building?” he asked, stopping before the former B. Altman’s Department store, the Graduate Center flags flapping proudly over the grand entry way.

“The Graduate Center is part of City University of New York. It is where you come to earn a Master’s or a Doctorate degree. It is one of the largest graduate-degree granting institutions in the entire United States.  Maybe you’ll end up here someday.”

“No, not me.  I just take the courses I need to own a business.  I’m an immigrant.  I have to make it here.  But my kids.  Maybe, them.  Someday.

I bet they will, Boris.  We’re all counting on it.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309