The Case for Indeterminacy

What it means to be a humanist at Harvard and in the world

Blue and yellow illustration of a young woman writing at a desk and lost in thought

Illustration by James O'Brien

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel on geopolitics in the Iberian Peninsula with a friend who happened to be a research assistant to one of the panelists. After the event, she introduced me to her professor warmly as a poet.

She conveyed this as though it were a truer statement than the fact that, say, I was a friend of hers or a fellow Harvard student. By the time I had collected myself enough to respond—I wasn’t a poet, I planned on insisting, just someone who wrote poems—the professor was already going on effusively about the latest book he’d read. We exchanged a few pleasantries before leaving.

As I walked through Harvard Square, I wondered: Why had I balked at my friend’s characterization? After all, it wasn’t untrue. I adored poetry. I unironically went around telling friends that it was my first love. I was working at the time on my senior thesis, a manuscript of poems, which had further cemented my devotion.

What I came to realize is that my reaction had far more to do with the College’s culture than with any personal discomfort I had about embracing this medium. The moment at the panel became, in retrospect, a window into complicated feelings I had about the place of the humanities at Harvard—ones I had felt viscerally for four years but failed to organize into coherent terms until that moment.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite television shows, Succession, when family patriarch and media tycoon Logan Roy stares wistfully at his four squabbling children. All of them are spoiled and ache for his recognition, not to mention top jobs in his sprawling empire. They are upset because their father is suggesting a strategic direction that would undercut their power in the company. As the argument simmers, Logan says to his children, “I love you, but you’re not serious people.”

Watching that scene, I felt an unexpected resonance with my experience studying the humanities here. When I tell peers that I study English, I’m often met with an enthusiastic response that belies tacit judgment. It’s as though they regard me as a less serious person—someone who fails to feel a practical urgency for the world’s problems or who isn’t doing enough to solve them.

Students here are always seeking answers—to the next problem set, to the question of where they see themselves in the next decades, to the world’s intractable dilemmas. But if done right, I think the humanities reject this impulse to arrive at definitive conclusions. What the humanities excel at is instilling in us a capacity to endure indeterminacy and contradiction. Both in Cambridge and beyond, we could use more of that.

Harvard is a place where people love proof. Proof that you’ve done a Thing, that you’ve made a visible intervention in the world and therefore have earned the nebulous title of “citizen leader” that adorns this school’s brochures. But this very idea of visible proof is usually incompatible with the kind of thinking involved in the humanities.

I’ve noticed that even peers and professors who are staunch advocates of the humanities tend, rather ironically, to discuss its “crisis” through numbers. I can understand why. Public data from Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research & Analytics show that 181 arts and humanities degrees were conferred last academic year. That’s less than half the number of engineering and applied sciences degrees awarded and less than a quarter of social science degrees. I’ve had countless conversations with students and adults here who, insisting they’re also bibliophiles, question why I didn’t keep my devotion to literature a hobby while opting for a more lucrative career path.

The dismissive attitudes I observe toward fields like English are representative of a broader tension—not just one between humanities and STEM fields, but between conceptual and applied learning. Harvard is committed to being at the vanguard of innovation. It’s also committed to appearing to others as being at the vanguard of innovation. Take the billion-dollar science and engineering complex, the $500-million Kemper Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence (donated by Mark Zuckerberg ’06, LL.D. ’17, and Priscilla Chan ’07), or the $200-million Salata Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability. Through these sleek new buildings and initiatives, Harvard aims to transmit a public message about its aspiring “citizen leaders”: here, we train people who don’t just think but also do.

I admire this dedication to applied scholarship. But what’s alarming is when this paradigm produces a belief that ideas that don’t result in actionable solutions are either indulgent or useless.

The common refrain after I tell someone what I study is, “What are you going to do with that?” Last semester, I had an extended debate with a friend who studies computer science and all but stated that my English concentration was selfish because literature is “irrelevant” to the “real world.” In another conversation, a peer who studies economics said that he admired the humanities precisely because of their uselessness, which he regarded as radical in its refutation of capitalist structures.

I left those conversations feeling unsatisfied. Both made me realize that the discussions I have about the humanities at Harvard often fall into particular camps. First is the Well-Meaning Exchange in which, usually without intending to, someone demands a discrete meaning from a humanistic experience, as though buying a product. Recently, a kind acquaintance approached me in the dining hall and said she’d read two of my poems in a magazine. “I didn’t really get them, though,” she said cheerily, before asking me to explain precisely what she was supposed to have understood from the text. She conveyed this with total sincerity. For a moment, I considered suggesting that maybe the idea of “getting” a specific or standardized meaning from a poem was flawed. Fearing sounding insufferable, I didn’t, and instead laughed lightly.

The second camp, typically involving another humanities concentrator, is the Commiseration. During the conversation, there are sighs over the fact that “no one really reads anymore” and an expression of relief at finally finding someone who “gets it.” I admit I often relish these conversations, despite the fact that there’s a kind of false romance—one that can be dangerous and exclusionary—in speaking as though you’re part of a select group of people who appreciate the humanities in a common way.

The third camp is the Fellowship Interview. I experienced a version of this last year when I was up for an internal fellowship awarded yearly to five students. Defined broadly, the fellowship urged applicants to devise innovative research projects to tackle public problems. I was fortunate enough to be accepted. When I logged onto the congratulatory Zoom for awardees, I was unsurprised to see no other humanities students present. The others on the screen were studying epidemiological preparation and blockchain and novel technologies to ensure the safety of prematurely born infants. I’d been adamant in my application that I was a writer; I had proposed to examine emerging regulatory frameworks for generative artificial intelligence through the lens of journalism and aesthetics.

Do I think my potential status as the token humanist advantaged me? Possibly—but probably not. Do I think I would have received the fellowship if I had proposed an entirely humanistic project? Absolutely not.

Those fellowship interviews made me both hopeful and concerned. Hopeful that people can see the humanities as vital to dealing with the defining issues facing our world. Concerned that the only way people will view the humanities as important is by subordinating them as a tool to enrich what are ultimately STEM-focused solutions.

I often have this frustration with humanities discourse at Harvard. Even though I resist it, when trying to justify the humanities, I find myself assuming the language of utility, of doing, of application over concept. It’s as though the only way to engage people who are skeptical of the humanities is by using their language and by meeting them on their side of the field. This compromises my ability to fully express the power of the humanities before the conversation has even begun.

Recently, I read Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner. I found the protagonist’s profile similar in ways to my own, similar probably to many humanities students unsure of how to chart their path in a world increasingly dismissive of the study of language and art. The protagonist is on a fellowship in Madrid to work on a poetry project that involves Spanish translation. As he roams the streets in the dark, he contemplates poetry’s place—or lack thereof—in contemporary culture. He vacillates between an internal conviction that poetry is entirely serious and entirely a farce. What relevance, he mulls, could this genre possibly have in a world so absorbed by material power and wealth?

In an effort to manufacture this relevance, the protagonist tries to regard his poems as instruments that advance practical ends. “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen,” he writes. This exercise ultimately fails; to him, this notion is so absurd that he “could not even imagine imagining it.” Yet when he imagines the opposite—the “total victory of those other things over poetry”—he realizes he would rather be dead than inhabit such a world.

I find this passage both grim and inspired. His protagonist is right: When the language of “doing” is constricted in a way that’s fundamentally incompatible with the nature of humanistic thinking, it’s easy to conclude that the humanities can’t do much. Yet Lerner’s protagonist is also right to insist that a world dismissive of the humanities—or poetry, as more narrowly examined here—is an impoverished one.

When people demand the humanities justify their existence through the vocabulary of utility, they misunderstand the very principles that make the humanities what they are. Work that can’t be seen is still work. Change that eludes standardized measurement is still change. The resistance to—or, worse, derision of—this truth seems to me an unnerving symptom of our current culture. There’s a beauty and a profound difficulty to moving, often privately, toward answers that may never be fully reached.

Isabella Cho ’24 is one of this year’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows.

Read more articles by: Isabella Cho

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