Haven’t I Heard This Before?
One evening near the beginning of this semester, before the work really began to set in, I cozied up in front of my computer screen to watch a documentary about mass incarceration. The next morning, in my American studies class, we watched and discussed a completely different documentary, which just happened to utilize the same clips of the 1963 Birmingham campaign I had seen in the film the night before. Okay, I thought, they’re both about the civil rights movement. There are bound to be some parallels between them.
But then came my sociology class a few days later, in which we were assigned a reading for the next class period. That night, I was caught off guard by a paragraph about the mass incarceration following the sit-ins and marches of the Birmingham campaign, which I had witnessed on screen twice already. No doubt, by this point, it seemed more than coincidental. It wasn’t until my English class the day after, when we began a memoir set during the civil rights movement, that I admitted to myself that this could only be the work of extraordinary forces — dark magic, divine intervention, maybe one of those hidden-camera reality shows. But I was forgetting where I was.
Behold! The liberal arts curriculum — a staple of Kenyon and many other colleges like it across the country. At Kenyon in particular, it entails study within the humanities, the natural sciences, the social sciences and the arts, with the intent of learning how to draw broad connections between each. While my own unique experience was a much more explicit manifestation of this idea, I have also seen it happen to many of my peers in ways that are subtler but no less meaningful. It is a rite of passage of every Kenyon student to encounter this magical interplay between his or her classes.
Yes, it is possible that anyone could simply make this happen by intentionally registering for classes that deal with similar subject matter. But this would be unnecessary, because it usually happens on its own to some extent. And that is the beauty of the liberal arts; they seem so natural, acting almost of their own accord.
This is especially true of the many interdisciplinary majors and concentrations that abound at Kenyon, including environmental studies, Latino/a studies, American studies, and Islamic civilization and cultures, just to name a few. Of course, every major at Kenyon is inherently interdisciplinary, but these special majors and minors are specifically designed to incorporate a multitude of subjects. For example, the American studies major involves study within sociology, history, English, political science, art history, music and religious studies.
It might seem counterintuitive that a fuller understanding of one subject would require attention to so many other completely different subjects, but the truth is that a given discipline doesn’t act in a vacuum. Its subject matter is changed and influenced by countless other subjects, because in the real world, one thing affects another until it eventually comes full circle. That’s how the liberal arts curriculum teaches Kenyon students to think; learning is not about retaining information from a textbook and spitting it back out again, but rather realizing a subject’s real-life connections and applications.
So if you end up at Kenyon and find yourself being followed to each of your classes by a constant stream of common themes, don’t worry: you’re not haunted (but that’s not to say Kenyon isn’t), it’s only the spirit of the liberal arts trying to get your attention. Don’t try to fight it; you’re completely helpless within its power. Just sit back, enjoy it, and let the forces of interplay work their magic.