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Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Oh, I majored in Myself"

I was looking at the NY Times wedding section today and came across the blurb on the civil union of the two men pictured above. (I always read the blurbs on the gay marriages, I find them fascinating). The man on the left is named Mark Bartkiewicz. He is 23.

The Times reported that Mr. Bartkiewicz "works in New York as a research assistant at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a group focused on insuring safe schools for all students. He graduated from the College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., and received a master's degree in sociology with a concentration in gender and sexuality studies from the University of Amsterdam."

An awful lot of people go to college these days to major in whatever they are, i.e., women's studies, black studies, or some other line of study which will merely serve to entrench them further in their particular political/racial/sexual identity. But isn't an education supposed to be broadening? Don't we theoretically go to college to learn about other people, and not just ourselves? What is the point of "diversity" for people who only want to navel gaze?

People used to study things like anthropology; in my day they would go off and study the Yanomano Indians in Brazil, or other cultures. In an earlier era Margaret Mead went to study the Samoans. (They basically punked her, by the way, by pretending to be far more promiscuous than they actually were.) But the point is, people used to be interested in studying new and different cultures. Nowadays it seems that all too often they want only to "study" themselves. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this trend is indicative of the increasing narcissism of our culture.

I'd be more impressed by Mr. Bartkiewicz if he had taken up electrical engineering. Or, for that matter, by a straight football player who had taken up Mr. Bartkiewicz's field of concentration. But it never seems to work that way.


Jonathan said...

What if he had come from a long line of electrical engineers, would simply following in his family's footsteps still have been impressive? What if he started out believing he was heterosexual, and was even a football player and taking Gender Studies courses helped him come out, would it be more impressive then? The paragraph about this guy doesn't give you enough information to make a judgement about him.

I understand the "I majored in myself" critique because some people define themselves with a ridiculously narrow lens. However, a major is ten to twelve courses but a degree is something like 32 courses. That means that you can pick a major that you enjoy and excel at, but still take lots of other classes and be well-rounded.

I'm a white guy who majored in Japanese studies. A lot of people would criticize that, saying I was a 21st century Orientalist. On the flip side, I don't think that I should be seen as superior in any way to my peers who happen to be Japanese. The entire foundation of the higher education system is that knowledge is open to anyone who would seek it out. Like gender, race and sexuality, a college major doesn't define you, it is a small part of who you are.

John Craig said...

Jonathan --
Thank you for your comment. True, if this guy had come from a family of engineers, that would have been less impressive. And true, the one paragraph civil union announcement is a limited amount of information. And yes, everyone takes courses outside their major.

But my point is that an awful lot of people these days seem to major in their identity, and by extension, in identity politics. (How many men major in womens' studies, and how many whites or Hispanics major in black studies?)

The courses in women's studies or African American studies are almost inevitably taught by leftist professors who specialize in helping people feel aggrieved.

I applaud you for seeing the way others might see you, and for not claiming any sort of moral superiority. Asian Studies departments, by the way, tend not to have the kind of leftist, pc reputations that certain other sociology departments have. (Full disclosure: my father was a professor of Japanese history at Harvard.) A lot of students who go into that field -- as you know -- go into it with an eye towards future business opportunities. And even students of Asian descent who go into it tend not to do so with the goal of feeling good about themselves, or feeling self-righteous in any way. At least that's my experience.

Anonymous said...

John, I noted this one too, and read it out loud to my husband, with similar comments. I think there was about a dozen years difference between the men, and wondered if there was any significance to that, too. Julie

John Craig said...

Julie --
I'm not sure what the meaning of the age difference is, I didn't read too much into that.

You're always hearing gay people say they don't want to just be defined by their sexuality, yet this guy majored in it and his career is about it. He seems to be defining himself pretty narrowly.