Something I find interesting about memes is that they can identify common experiences and beliefs. After all, they spread because people can somehow relate to them. They’re funny, or truthful or relatable, so we share them. Most memes, then, don’t come out of nowhere. Their success is a measure of relatability; they are a reflection of popular sentiments. I think that’s why, although meme formats may change, they often tread the same ground. People will always joke about having crushes, or procrastinating work—any topic that people can identify with.
What does any of this have to do with Trinity Requirements? Also known as T-Reqs, these are the list of subject areas which Duke students in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences must take. Personally, I find them painful. They add another consideration while browsing our archaic course registration system, and I’d rather just pick classes which contribute to my major. It’s a thorn in my side.
One of the ways that I cope with this misfortune is memes. Specifically, the ones mocking course requirements, or the subjects I’ve been forced to take. It’s my version of Saturday Night Live mocking the president—it solves nothing but it’s vindicating. However, like SNL skits, these memes do more than criticize the subject. Their approach to the critique provides insight into its author’s beliefs. In the case of memes mocking non-STEM classes, their premises tend to be problematic. The (almost always sexist) arguments and jokes against Women’s Studies, for example, make the case for its existence. These unpleasant subtexts explain why we need some T-Reqs, at least. Of the ones I support, I am both most passionate and best equipped to talk about Arts, literature and Performance.
I became a supporter of ALP after I took AP Literature in my junior year. Before then, I had a lot of backwards opinions about the subject, and the memes to match. For starters, I believed that it was a class about bullshitting. If you pick the right buzzwords (usually “metaphor” and some abstract emotion) then you get an easy A. I considered it a class about feelings, rather than facts. The memes about literature majors winding up unemployed were also pretty funny to me.
As far as opinions on literature went, mine were pretty run of the mill. They are shared by countless high schoolers, and, tragically, many adults, too. One of the most depressing examples is David Benioff, the showrunner of Game of Thrones who claimed that “themes are for 8th grade book reports.”
While being generally incorrect, the memes I both shared and enjoyed contained two interesting half-truths about English Literature. Firstly, that it was so obsessed with feelings that it would abandon logic, and that this obsession makes it irrelevant to society.
Let’s first talk about this fixation on emotion. When I first came to the class, I approached literature like this: think of a truism, then justify it with the text. Essentially, imitating that meme where a teacher thinks the word chair is a metaphor for something asinine like “growing up.” The rationale for me was simple: since English isn’t concerned with logic, just write whatever you think the teacher will like. In case you were wondering, the first paper I wrote, using this line of thinking, was a disaster.
This is where the “half” in “half-truth” became apparent. Yes, AP Lit was centered around empathy, and rewarded emotional intelligence. However, it also required inductive reasoning. I soon found out that it wasn’t simply about projecting my feelings onto the page. Rather, I had to try to understand why a work made me feel the way it did. That isn’t a rejection of facts or logic. In fact, it trained me to remain logical in adverse situations—the time when it most matters. It showed me that engaging with my feelings, and recognizing how they affect my interpretation of events, is the key to remaining objective. In other words, it made me more receptive to facts and logic than the classes which claimed to only traffic in those two things.
After all, acknowledging your feelings doesn’t make you histrionic, and it doesn’t mean you’re ruled by them, either. In fact, it’s probable that you’ll be more level headed than someone who denies theirs. At the very least, you won’t try to justify your biases as being “logical”—that’s a recipe for mental gymnastics.
I wonder, then, why literature students are so often portrayed as emotional, and hostile to “facts and logic.” After all, faculties like literature are the ones generally accused of being anti-academia, like in this Scientific American piece. It posits that these departments teach students to reject facts and stifle debate. “Social Justice Warriors,” the great bogeyman of the right, are forged in literature classes, apparently.
That brings me nicely to this next question: are emotions useless in academia and “the real world?” Given what I just said, I would argue no. What I cherish most about literature was it showing me how my feelings influenced my interpretation of the world. Recognizing that an entire room of people can draw different conclusions because of their varied perspectives was incredibly important.
Say you’re debating someone. If you can’t factor in their perspective, you’ll have a hard time winning them over. Empathy—recognizing that others see the world differently—is how you identify common ground. Similarly, if you’re listening to someone else speak, and their arguments contradict your beliefs, they’ll feel less credible to you. You won’t give them the benefit of the doubt, and you won’t fill in the gaps in their logic—two things you would do for somebody you like. Recognizing that will make you a more open-minded thinker. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and honestly, there’s a more interesting question at hand.
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Why did I, and others like me, think that emotions are useless in the first place? Don’t facts care about our feelings?
Perhaps that answer is best framed by another question. Namely, what is the stereotyped image of a literature student? By doing a quick google search, you’ll see that almost all the images are of women. The same goes for feminists and social justice warriors. All three of these labels involve empathy so, clearly, it is seen as a feminine thing. In a patriarchal society, that is an undesirable trait by default.
This is also the thesis of the psychologist Carol Gilligan, who developed the theory of an “ethic of care.” In her own words, it is an ethic whose “logic is inductive, contextual, psychological, rather than deductive or mathematical.” It acknowledges our humanity, whereas other frameworks can often view morality as a math problem.
Moreover, she argues that this is the natural thought process of human beings. Empathy is innate, and our society makes it the domain of women on arbitrary, patriarchal grounds. In an equal society, Gilligan posits, it wouldn’t be gendered. The idea that empathy is intrinsic to our morality is easy to prove; after all, a callous argument might have impeccable logic but we still won't buy it. Simply put, it feels wrong. A thinker can rationalize any position if they try hard enough, but the measure of good ideas lies in how they make us feel.
I think Gilligan’s argument helps explain why people, men especially, might avoid and mock English classrooms. We are raised in a society that views emotional as a synonym for weak, illogical and feminine. Therefore, literature—where the ethic of care is salient—would be considered all of those things. One argument I often heard was that studying literature was for those afraid of STEM (a “masculine” field) and the overly emotional. In other words, it’s like the academic version of the color pink.
Funnily enough, even though society seems inclined towards cold-blooded logic, it rewards empathy. The best thinkers are the ones with a masterful grasp on emotion. Aristotle himself established pathos as one of three things central to rhetoric itself. Amongst pundits, being attuned to your audience’s mentality is how you make them listen. The most extreme example of this is Glenn Beck, who cried on TV. By channeling their feelings of rage and alienation, he became one of the GOP’s most influential voices. Even in the workplace, emotional intelligence is valuable. You won’t get very far if you took a “facts don’t care about your feelings” approach. Actually, that would probably get you fired. In other words, while we’re raised in a society which places emphasis on reason, emotions continue to govern our politics, culture and society.
That’s why I think T-Reqs—or at least having students take Arts, Literature and Performance courses—is important. It offers us a chance to escape the rather toxic masculinity which permeates other studies. After all, most economics classes don’t ask you to consider how you feel. Philosophers, to the best of my knowledge, are mostly worried about logic. Conversely, classes like Literature allow us to engage in an ethic of care, understand our emotions and embrace our human nature. In terms of utility, I think that I learned more in that AP Lit class than I did in all my other classes that year, combined. Crucially, that’s because it taught me how to identify my biases and therefore think more clearly.
When I think about this, I’m reminded of the “give a man a fish” proverb. “Give a man a fish, it’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, it’ll last him a lifetime.”
We don’t, and we couldn’t, come to Duke in order to learn every fact and protocol we’ll need in life. Instead, we should be here to learn how to approach life. It’s all well and good to be taught about our major. However, if we didn’t leave here in touch with our humanity, our emotions, then Duke will have failed us. While literature remains a unique gateway to accomplishing that—while it is a home to the ethic of care—the University is obligated to show it to us. It might not change everyone, but it’s important that they’re exposed to the concept, at the very least.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
Dan would like to thank Joshua Curnett, his former AP English Language teacher, for inspiring this reflection. Curnett’s own commentary on the Ethic of Care was what introduced Dan to the concept, and got him thinking about the roles of both gender and empathy in education.