Major Insight Episode 14 Find Your Purpose and Place in the Humanities (Part 2)

Peter and Jacob

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In this episode, we dive deep into the heart of human nature by hearing how the humanities can be a powerful way to learn more about ourselves, about the world, and each other.

We'll also get to know more about the new host of this podcast, Peter Everett. As a double history and comparative religion major, Peter's research touches upon the value that can be found in studying the people and the places that are often overlooked.

Featured Majors

History, Comparative Religion, Political Science, Literature, Philosophy

Featured Awards, Scholarships, and Organizations:

University Honors Program 

Full Episode Also Available on YouTube

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research and its relevance in our world. In this episode, we dive deeper into the promise and potential of studying the humanities as a powerful way to learn more about ourselves, about the world and each other. We'll also get to know more about the new host of this podcast, Peter Everett. As a double history and comparative religion major, Peter's research touches upon the value that can be found in studying the people and the places that are often overlooked. Now, here's Peter Everett as he continues his conversation with Jacob Bruggeman by talking about the influence the humanities have had on his own outlook, about meeting his college mentor here at Miami, and more.

Peter Everett: When I came into Miami and joined the Honors Program, I got paired up with an honors mentor who happened to be Jacob.

Jacob Bruggeman: Sitting right across from you now, yeah.

Peter Everett: Which was really, really ... everything's come full circle here.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. You've had no shortage of experiences with Miami's programs for research. You've had no shortage of mentorships. Hopefully our relationship is included in there a little bit.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. Honors mentee right here.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely. I think you should talk a little bit about your own research as well.

Peter Everett: Sure. Yeah. So right now I'm actually in the Comparative Religions Department, which is my other major along with History. I'm in a 400 level class, which is basically a student research workshop with Dr. Gray and we're studying religious extremism, especially with the Westboro Baptist Church, which Dr. Gray has countless hours of interview data. Because he takes students there, and we interview Westboro Baptist members. And I mean that's extremely relevant, obviously, to the political climate today.

Peter Everett: You have a lot of different rhetoric being thrown around on the news. You've got just religious extremism in general is just an extremely touchy subject. It's something that's very misunderstood and actually the research we're doing right now, the workshop, it's focused on approaching these people with empathy that they don't otherwise get and trying to understand them from their perspective and understand, "Okay, why are they saying the things they're saying? Why are they doing the things they're doing?" What's really ... not just screaming at these people and trying to throw them down. Like that's not an effective way to communicate. It's not an effective way to maybe counter what they're saying. I mean, so it's definitely a really exciting project.

Peter Everett: And right now I'm actually, I'm working on coding. I don't know if you've done coding before with interviews.

Jacob Bruggeman: [crosstalk 00:02:44].

Peter Everett: But that's ... for people that don't know, coding is basically coming up with labels for certain types of discourse within let's say interview data or within written primary sources from the group that you're studying or from the area that you're studying. So it's really exciting. So that's what I'm doing right now. And that's because freshman year I took class with Dr. Gray, went into his office hours, talked to him, was just really excited about the subject. He was teaching about Religious Fundamentalism. And he really latched onto my enthusiasm and actually convinced me to be a religion major and we've just had a great relationship. So that's something where professors at Miami are very inclined to have their doors open and to spend time with you. If you go up and you make the approach, they're not going to do the approach though. They're not going to do that for you.

Peter Everett: You got to actually go up and talk to them. But if you do, you'd be surprised at how often they're very open to that. Also, I had a Philosophy professor freshman year, Dr. King, I mentioned before who, he would just, it made a lasting impression on me that he would just sit down and he was willing to just have coffee with me every now and again. Throughout... And not office hours, not anything, for just to chat about philosophy and chat about ideas. And that was something where I was like, "Okay, Miami cares about that. The professors here care about that." And that's something that's really awesome.

Jacob Bruggeman: And you touched on in your description of the research, something that the humanities also does for those who study it and that is develop an ability for empathy. And in my experience, that's really quite true. In the research I've done with homelessness, but then also in MA, in political science and sort of the work that I've done in politics locally, I was on the board of a Progressive Political Action Committee and of the Democratic Party County Executive Committee before I sort of, which I have since, sort of shifted more to the middle in my politics. But the point is that when I was doing those political activities and talking with people with whom I had great disagreements on issues that I perceived the stakes to be quite high.

Jacob Bruggeman: I was able to, I think, not always, but sometimes set aside those political differences and recognize the person sitting across from me as a person. Right.

Peter Everett: Absolutely.

Jacob Bruggeman: And that's rare and rarer now in a political climate where there's dehumanizing rhetoric and left and right and no shortage of which is coming from both sides when they talk about each other. And the point is that when you study history or literature, comparative religion, you're teaching yourself to step into other people's shoes. You're teaching yourself to value and interpret others' experiences, however different from your own. And there are a lot of problems that arise when you start, in History or in Sociology, interpreting other people's experiences and writing about them, especially. But the point is though, that through the repeated action of trying to interpret sources or what people say to you, which of course you're coding right now, you are - source by source - building your ability to put yourself in other people's shoes. And that's a skill that is rare today, right? Empathy seems to be on the decline.

Peter Everett: Especially when it comes to hot button topics, which the humanities often will delve into, especially with History because, and historical perspective for example, on a lot of the politics, a lot of the issues today is extremely important because it gives that perspective that we don't have now in the day and now and this news cycle of, oh, every day there's a new story and we forget about what happened yesterday. And so there's no context for anything anymore. And that's another thing that the humanities really helps you provide and helps you understand the importance of this context and contextualizing everything.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely. And it also, on top of the context that you might find for political events or historical events or different philosophies or literatures in studying the humanities, the humanities help you understand the context of your own life. I mean, I'm reminded the T.S. Eliot line, the phrase here, "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It seems that that's a project of the humanities to develop in us a capability to see something fresh in the same face every day, be it the face of your community or your partner. I mean, being able to, one, have that skill for empathy, but then two, continually search for and deal with new information, new circumstances makes it such that it's hard to be bored.

Jacob Bruggeman: And on that topic of the context of our own lives, I mean, for me, studying History, studying Political Science has made my hometown, what I used to think as of this banal suburb and my home state of Ohio, and Miami university indeed, and the cornfields, right? As places that are interesting beyond measure. And a previous guest on the podcast, Abby Culpepper, and I talked about this, right? There's this myth today, just like there are myths around what the humanities are. There's a myth that culture only exists on the coasts, only exists in cities. And for me, studying History, really tuning myself into the complexity of human emotion and action has made walking through small town street, small sleepy town, right, something that can be as fascinating as coming upon New York's LED lit cityscape at midnight.

Jacob Bruggeman: And by becoming accustomed to the complexities of the life around us of the context that we're steeped in, we can better appreciate the complexity. Again, this is why when you study the humanities, you develop this flexibility, this disposition let's say and an ability to dwell in uncertainty and to dwell in the questions that are unanswerable but nevertheless dominate our lives. Who am I? What am I doing here? What does this mean? Who am I to be? Who are we to be together? These are questions that nobody can answer finally, in the final sense, but they're ones that what animate our lives and animate, of course, our political discussions.

Jacob Bruggeman: And recognizing that those are questions that everybody has to answer. It's something central to the humanities. And when you recognize that you can, one, develop that skill for empathy we've talked about, but then, two, approach anywhere in the world and be fascinated, you can develop a skill for being grateful, gracious, and then ultimately finding wonder in the world by recognizing the things that the humanities teach us. Right. And that's for me probably the most enchanting and enduring reason why I love the humanities. But it's one that is not "practical" in the sense that we've been taught and it's one that is lost a little bit today in the classroom.

Peter Everett: Well I think it's coming back, especially now with the resurgence of the humanities here a little bit and having your face everywhere, like you said, it's a sign, it's a sign. And I really love what you said about the myth that there is no culture, for example, in a cornfield somewhere in Ohio. Because ...

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, you should talk briefly about your own research on your hometown and where you're from.

Peter Everett: Yeah, I was just saying I think it really, what the humanities boils down to is myth-busting. I like that a lot. Just, there's a lot of different myths about people.

Jacob Bruggeman: Not the Discovery Channel show. [crosstalk 00:00:10:38].

Peter Everett: Whether or not it's a myth about Westboro Baptist Church or myth about homelessness. There's a lot of myths and a lot of, I think those myths come from people not taking the time to actually look at somebody or look at a culture for what do they like, who they are, and just like, "Okay, here's the bullet points. Here's the talking points of this person. Right, this is who they are." That's not who they are. I think that's what it really comes down to is trying to understand who somebody is. And that's what I tried to do. I went down half ... some of my family's from Corbin, Kentucky [inaudible 00:00:11:11], in the middle of nowhere, right? Everyone writes that place off. Okay, there's nothing here. Right. But there's a lot of insight. There's a lot of culture. There's a lot ... there are people there, right?

Peter Everett: And they're worth the attention. They're worth the study. Not only because, "Okay, we want to understand, okay. Rural Kentucky called, there's a lot of richness there. There's, there's a ton of history." People there can trace their families back to the American Revolution. Okay. There is a lot of pride in that community still and that's fascinating. Also, there's a lot of insights, for instance, my research was on the opioid epidemic and there is a lot of research you can do down there. There's a lot of insight you can gain just from just like a case study on one community and that's kind of what I was trying to do. And it was extremely fascinating. It really provided a lot of insight and kind of put a human face on something that a lot of people maybe they don't have a human face for, right?

Peter Everett: They just hear about on news, "Oh here's the number, here's the number of people that have died. Okay, how are we going to stop that? What policy are we going to institute? Okay." But you can't design a policy unless you know how it's affecting the people on the ground. And that's what I think a lot of people are missing when they come up with these proposals and they could benefit from research like that. And that's something the humanities can provide and that's what makes the humanities so valuable.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. And for me, I can only speak in my experience and that was wonderful. The humanities have taught me that you can never give up hope where there are other human beings, excuse me. And-

Peter Everett: Mic drop right there.

Jacob Bruggeman: Well yeah, no, I don't know about that. But the point is that ... the point is that as one of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou always used to quote from Terence, "I am human and therefore nothing human is alien to me." And she was ... unfortunately passed, but was one of the reasons that I started to fall in love with poetry and literature in high school, which I think precipitated my interest in History. But the things that divide us and that seem so different among us are, in reality, we are relatively similar despite the things that do seem so different among us. And I don't know. I don't know.

Jacob Bruggeman: I mean, for me that means that we're never without hope. But then also, again, it goes to what I was saying about the complexities that you are shown through the humanities, the flexibility that the humanities build on us, right? Because recognizing how similar we are despite how wicked I might think this person is nudges me towards that saying that, I know we talked about in the book club that ... Peter and I were part of a book club together for a year.

Jacob Bruggeman: But, that understanding nudges me to the line, the famous line from Solzhenitsyn, "The thread of good and evil runs through every human heart." Right. This is something that a study of History or Philosophy can teach us. It's a way to nudge us towards self-reflection, right? It's a way to nudge us towards that, a critical disposition towards ourselves and the world.

Peter Everett: I was definitely going to maybe go take that vein a little bit. Especially with, I mean, we're going to discuss some human nature right now. That's what we're really talking about. And that, for example, when you are watching an interview of Westboro Baptist Church member and you start to realize, "I don't completely disagree with that thing they're saying," you're like, "Okay, does this mean that I'm a Western Baptist church member?" No.

Jacob Bruggeman: No.

Peter Everett: Does it mean that, okay, maybe I'm capable of maybe doing this thing or thinking this way as a human being? Maybe yeah. And you got to think of yourself-

Jacob Bruggeman: If the circumstances, the context as we say, where different.

Peter Everett: Yeah. We talked about context, yeah.

Jacob Bruggeman: Right. Recognizing that if my childhood was different, if my parents were different, if one of them wasn't around, if my brothers weren't there, what might I be? That's something that ... that's a question that you need to talk ... you need to ask yourself. But it's one that you can better answer having studied the past, having talked with other people about their lives and learn from them lessons about how we should live.

Peter Everett: I think that's where the empathy comes from as well. Realizing that you kind of lose that sense of, "I'm better than this person." That's really what it comes down to is, "Oh, I'm superior to this person because of this and this and this." Well, you realize when you start really studying and looking and reading all these books and talking to these people that maybe you think are less than you or ignorant or bigoted or whatever it is, and you realize, "Okay, they're not that different from me, which means that I'm not any better than them and we're all in this together." And that's really what it really, it comes down to. And that's where that empathy comes from.

Jacob Bruggeman: There are two things I'd like to pick up on in that. One of them is an attitude in History that is way too common today. And that is that the people of the past, who have lived before us, who've come before, or were our forerunners, they are somehow fundamentally different from us. They are somehow more evil or ... right? Like the gap in time makes us-

Peter Everett: We're more enlightened because we live now.

Jacob Bruggeman: We're more enlightened. We're so much better. We are doing things so much more clearly and more oriented towards progress. In a lot of cases, it's hard to argue with this, but that attitude also signals an idea that the people of the past are somehow like lesser than us. That they were not people. And that for me is totally destroyed by actually studying history. I mean one of my favorite books, most inspirational texts, I would say, is Will Durant's Lessons on History or Lessons of History. And there's a line in there that I always draw inspiration from when reading documents or when getting demoralized in the research process. And that is, to paraphrase, "The past is a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, which, excuse me, wherein a thousand saints, statesman, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers and philosophers still speak, teach, carve and sing."

Jacob Bruggeman: And that idea gets it, one, that there's a fundamental compatibility between the people of the past and us. But that's because we're all people, regardless of how we've "evolved and progressed." But also that the past is a living thing and it's something that we interpret and reinterpret today for us, for a project we're working on. We draw strength from it. And I did want to mention that, because this idea of difference oftentimes is manifest in how we think about people in the past.

Jacob Bruggeman: And I kind of want to contradict myself a little bit with the second thing that I want to talk about, which is that, there is a privilege here, right? I mean, because we are, and I just want to acknowledge that despite saying and trying to acknowledge the sameness, right? And the things we should have in common, there oftentimes are differences so vast in our experiences that they are differences that we have to pay attention to. And that's clearer today than it's ever been before. Particularly along the lines of race and gender and whatnot. But we can talk about both things. We can talk about the fundamental differences in our experience while recognizing that we share so much and that we can draw strength from what we share and that strength can help us address all that we don't share and all the injustices that arise from those struggles and dynamics for sure.

Peter Everett: And I think that idea, both the ideas of difference and of our similarity both come from our personal histories, our community's history. So history is shaping, our understanding of our history is what shapes our current understanding of the world.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely.

Peter Everett: And that's really what makes history so valuable and the humanities in general so valuable, philosophy, literature, those all shape your understanding, more so than I think any other topic of study. Because they speak to those fields, those questions about, I get... those questions that eat at your soul at night sometimes, those are those questions. It's not what the periodic table of elements proton number ... that kind of question doesn't answer those more fundamental questions, those worldview questions, those understanding your life type questions.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. And what the availability of those questions in the humanities, in the study of it means for students, students at Miami, students at universities across the US, is that you have an opportunity to make a contribution to the great conversation, right, I mean, it's cliche, right. But this is the great play, right? And this is your opportunity to contribute to it. And the reality is that the humanities, more than other fields of study today, give you an opportunity to say what you want to say, to say it powerfully and to teach you how to do those things along the way. Right. So, I mean, there are multiple levels to this conversation, but one of them is fundamentally that, in my opinion, and I think in your opinion too, studying these things helps us live well together and by ourselves. And then also hypothetically as a scholar, if you do want to go on and do studies and study these things more seriously.

Peter Everett: Well, I don't think we can top that. So, what plans now with this humanities education, with all of this understanding, with all of this empathy you've developed and all of this research experience that you have, what are your future plans?

Jacob Bruggeman: My plans are having built this ability to dwell on uncertainty. There are quite a few uncertainties about what my next few years will look like. The next year at least is planned. I'm headed across the pond to start an MPhil in Economic and Social History at Cambridge, at Darwin College specifically. It's a year long. After that, I don't know. There are thoughts I have about continuing, going on to the PhD, either here in the US or over in the UK, of taking a break working in journalism as I've learned to do over the summer with the skillset that we mentioned earlier of-

Peter Everett: Of course.

Jacob Bruggeman: ... dwelling in uncertainty and whatnot. And there are other thoughts that I have about, or trying to work for a museum or work for an educational nonprofit. So there are those three spheres. But I'm open and willing to try out different paths to fulfillment in my own life.

Peter Everett: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast Jacob and passing the torch to me. It's been awesome. [crosstalk 00:22:03].

Jacob Bruggeman: Thanks, Peter. It was a pleasure.

James Loy: Jacob Bruggeman studied History and Political Science here at Miami and he's currently continuing his studies at the University of Cambridge. And thank you for listening to this episode where again, we want to welcome our new host, Peter Everett, as he takes over for season two of Major Insight. Peter will be back again next time with an all new interview, and if you liked this podcast, please share it. We are available wherever you find your podcasts.



Featured Majors: 

History, Comparative Religion, Political Science, Literature, Philosophy

Featured Awards, Scholarships, and Organizations:

University Honors Program