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耶鲁人反思:学了一个不实用的学科,值吗?

Date: 2017-03-21
Browsing times: 36

 耶鲁人反思:学了一个不实用的学科,值吗?

In 1998, I received a scholarship to study for an undergraduate degree at Yale University. During my four years at Yale, I explored a broad array of subjects: economics, German language and literature, mathematics, English literature, etc., but the subject I was most committed to intellectually was history. The ten history courses I took at Yale included ancient Greek history, Roman history, medieval European history, the Reformation, the European intellectual history of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the history of modern Russia and modern Germany. When I told other Chinese that I was studying history at Yale, many talked as if I were a slacker evading science and engineering programs, or a loser who couldn't make it in computer science or electrical engineering; others wondered why I had chosen such an impractical subject.

 

Both responses reflect the deeply ingrained prejudice of many Chinese against the humanities - and are grossly erroneous. Studying history at a great American university is neither easy nor impractical. In some sense, I learned my most important lessons through struggling with the difficulties of studying history. My history courses posed a much bigger academic challenge than my previous experience in Tsinghua as a freshman in biochemistry, or in Tsinghua Fuzhong's experimental accelerated science program. I came away from those four arduous years at Yale tremendously enriched.

 

Most history classes at Yale require attending two or three lectures a week, a weekly discussion section, relentless reading assignments of 200 or more pages a week, a midterm and final exam, and two papers. At the beginning, just taking notes on lectures and finishing the reading on time were daunting challenges; writing papers was nightmarish. My trouble with papers generally started the moment they were assigned. The topics were indeterminate, e.g. "write about any topic of your choice in ancient Greek history", "write a book review for a book of your choice" from a reading list of fifty books on medieval history or "compare and contrast selected passages from Karl Marx's Das Kapital and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America." The expected end result is a paper making a coherent argument that draws its supporting evidence or ideas from several books or journal articles. The subtext to such assignments is: whatever you say in the paper has to reflect your own thinking; hence simply repeating the professor's opinions or whatever is in the readings will not get you very far. In the first week of my Yale career it was hammered home to us that plagiarism was the capital crime in the academic world. Each year there are students who are punished for plagiarizing.

 

Looking at a paper assignment, my mind often went blank: ANY topics in ancient Greek history? But which one, andswheresto start? Even after I was able to narrow the topic down to, say, the career of Pericles, there were still thousands of books and articles written on it. What was my main argument to be? What points should I make? What information should I include in the paper to support my argument? I would spend hours going through hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading with no clue what to write on. I spent so many nights pacing back and forth in the library, trying to define a topic and choose my arguments. And I was hardly the only person with this problem: Yale students complain about papers as much as Londoners complain about the weather. Pulling all-nighters to finish a paper is part of the shared memory of those "bright college years".

耶鲁人反思:学了一个不实用的学科,值吗?

I gradually realized the value of such seemingly unguided education. Allowing students great scope in choosing their own paper topics reflects the Western belief in individual initiative. Students are encouraged to make their own choices and go wherever their interests lead them. On a different level, in the process of groping for a topic, then screening the available material, and finally using it to make an intelligent argument, students learn the important lesson of rapidly processing and critically utilizing a large amount of information. This is an important skill not only in historical research, but in many careers outside the academic world,swheresinformation comes in the form of a tangled mess, not neat textbook passages to be spoon-fed to passive "learners".

 

I find the language skills acquired from history classes highly relevant in the real world. Because of the broad spectrum of subjects that history encompasses - political events, social changes, intellectual and artistic movements, etc - the student of history has to command a wide vocabulary to describe and analyze these different subjects. For my history classes, I wrote papers on the military strategy that Athens and Sparta employed in the Persian War, the autobiography of the medieval philosopher Abelard, Russian peasant uprisings in the 1860s, the environmental crisis in the early Qing Dynasty, and numerous other topics. Intensive reading, writing, and discussion forced me to absorb and master new vocabulary and rhetorical tactics at a rapid pace. And happily, many historians are excellent stylists. Their precise and supple use of English makes their books models of English expository prose at its best.

 

Writing well is a fine skill, but is it important? Yes, very! Many companies that came to recruit at Yale, including most of the well-known Wall Street finance and consulting firms, made no secret of their preference for candidates with solid writing skills. Each year these firms hire a large number of new graduates with majors such as history, English, and political science, but no formal finance or business education. Curiously, the undergraduate economics or finance curriculum at elite private universities such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton has a strong theoretical bent and is not immediately applicable to a career in a private firm. Indeed, most elite universities don't even have an undergraduate business program. In the US one of the most influential and lucrative professions is law, a field in which writing skills are indispensable. Not surprisingly, law school is one of the most popular destinations for Yale grads majoring in history.

耶鲁人反思:学了一个不实用的学科,值吗?

The ability to use words well is highly valued and respected in Western culture. The two most "popular" figures on the Yale campus are probably Richard Brodhead, dean of Yale College, and sinologist Jonathan Spence. Both cast their spell on the Yale community through the excellence of their writing and public speaking. Spence's course on modern Chinese history once drew a first-day crowd of 650. He had to limit enrollment to 400, the capacity of the largest lecture hall at Yale. From my experience, Chinese students with an excellent command of English receive a lot of respect and attention from Americans.

 

So a history education is useful. Yet if the question "Why study history?" had been put to the 204 history majors in my class, chances are that they would have replied, "Because it's fun." And it is!. The study of history is enjoyable on several levels. The lectures are often the highlight of a history course. Boasting one of the finest history departments in the US, Yale has many history professors of superstar status. Often superb story tellers, they turn lecturessintosgrand historical drama. Jonathan Spence's lectures are known for his insightful anecdotes from Chinese history. In the famous course on ancient Greek history taught by Donald Kagan, students would applaud at the end of each lecture to acknowledge Kagan's impassioned eloquence. My personal favorite was Prof. James Heinzen's history of modern Russia: on the grand level, the Russian people's heroic struggle with destiny over the past 200 years is deeply moving.

 耶鲁人反思:学了一个不实用的学科,值吗?

 

Reading is another great source of enjoyment that I cannot help mentioning. In a typical history course, the professor lectures on historical developments in broad terms, while the reading for a particular week, usually a book on a specific subject, supplements the professor's presentation with vivid details and a more thorough analysis of something touched on in the lectures. Reading is really the blood and flesh of the course. In the class I took on the history of modern Germany, for example, Prof. Henry Turner focuses his lectures exclusively on the socio-political development of Germany since Bismarck. The reading includes the biography of Bismarck by AG Taylor, excerpts from German Marxist Eduard Bernstein's political writing and 19th century German historian Heinrich von Treitschke's lecture notes, Heinrich Mann's novel Man of Straw, excerpts from Hitler's Mein Kampf, Michael Allen's The Nazi Seizure of Power, and many other books. While a few, such as Hitler's Mein Kampf, were torture to read, most were fascinating. I spent many weekends in the library doing my history reading, and a good book to read was an important part of my Saturday "relaxation".

 

History is not only fun for people who study it, but also for the people who research it. When I talked with Prof. Turner about one of his books, he told me that the idea for it arose as he was browsing through the catalogue of some Nazi documents newly released after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among the documents were personal letters from Franz von Papen, one of the key figures behind Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. Turner thought that they might reveal something about the power struggle immediately before Hitler's rise to power, so he asked a colleague doing research in Moscow to photocopy some of the letters. These, as it turned out, told a story about Hitler's ascent to power quite different from what most people had believed. Based on these and other documents, Turner wrote a book that brought our understanding of this period closer to historical reality. Almost ten years after its publication, the aged professor still got very excited over his book: "It was detective work. I had a lot of fun working on it."

 

 

No essay or book fully explains why people study history. The answer given by Donald Kagan, Yale's celebrated professor of ancient Greek history, captures the essence of the problem: "You only know why people should study history after you have studied history.

 

文章与图片来源于留美学子,如想咨询更多关于出国留学专业选择方面信息, 请与大翰留学专家联系,电话: 13530031936 或者13823166234。

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