Guest lecturer defends, praises humanities education

This past Thursday, Nov. 2, David Perry – a Medieval History Professor at the University of Minnesota – gave a talk to the St. Olaf community entitled, “Study Humanities, Save the World.” Curious Northfield community members, St. Olaf professors and students filed in to the Center for Art and Dance to hear just how to answer that awful question asked over every family gathering: “What are you supposed to do with that (major)?” 

Perry, a former professor of St. Olaf, has had a very winding career path himself. Though he considers himself mainly a scholar and humanist, he has in the past few years been pursuing journalism. He is a regular columnist for Pacific Standard, and is a contributing writer for CNN, The Atlantic, The New York Times, among many more. 

Abby Wollam ’20, a humanities major, attended the talk because she wanted to hear about how her field of study can benefit her beyond graduation: “When I saw the title of the talk I was intrigued because you often hear people question the value of majoring in something like history, political science or ancient studies which has always made me a little fearful and question my own life choices.”

A recurring theme throughout his talk was taking the skills he had learned in his education as a history major and applying them in more practical ways to his life. 

Using personal examples from his life, Perry told the audience about when he found out his son had Down Syndrome. 

“The depths of my ignorance about it were essentially endless. I didn’t know what it meant for him in the long term,” Perry said. Next he did what he said “any of us would do.” He educated himself. 

“I knew how to know things,” Perry said. “I knew how fields of information worked, and I knew how to apply myself.” He used his research skills to access all sorts of information to fully understand the depths of the disability. “I’ve always felt very grateful for my education and that it prepared me to make this huge shift in my life.” 

Wollam was intrigued by his talk, and really appreciated his engagement with the audience through his incorporation of popular culture into the talk. “The biggest takeaway that I got from this talk was the reiteration of the idea that it really isn’t about what you study but about the tools and skills you acquire.”

St. Olaf students may do well to remember that not everything in life is determined by what you major in here. Instead, Perry believes that, “The best tool we have developed as humans is to learn how to learn.”

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