Zach Hughes '12

Zach Hughes profile photoReporter, Alaska Public Media

Thesis Title: Masks of Glamour, Screens of Discipline: The History of Sunglasses in America

A very good WGS Professor started her introductory undergrad classes by quoting another academic (I forget whom) on the purpose of a liberal arts education. It wasn’t particularly lofty. In my recollection she matter-of-factly told the lecture hall: “The point is to make your interior life more interesting.” I think that’s right, and I think the same is true of a concentration like Social Studies. What I really valued and esteemed of the program was the encouragement to engage deliberately, creatively, and rigorously with my own undergrad education. This meant getting to take the seminars, workshops, even survey classes that tugged at my curiosity, and extract whatever I deemed of value for larger projects. That was as true of content as methodology. I hated statistics and bland micro-economic theory (and as a petulant 20-year-old resented getting dragged through both) but was way sharper for picking up the terminology, strengths, and methodological limits of both disciplines. The academic highlight of my undergrad years was getting to take all the tools I found keenest, all the arguments I thought most convincing, all the content most exciting, and create a project of my own: a long ass senior thesis. In this case about the history of sunglasses. I loved working on my thesis, from the hours spent in library carrels to the oral defense. It was getting the room and support to borrow all my favorite academic morsels for preparing a feast of my own.          

A lot of what I learned in Social Studies turned me from a dilettante into a semi-responsible generalist. If you’re quick and articulate I think it’s very easy to spin a lot of BS, because people give you the benefit of the doubt when you spout off. Even if often it’s nonsensical or poorly informed. Social Studies, for me, at least put the breaks on that because there were very smart people who would push back on undisciplined garbage thinking or faking your way through a response after just skimming the table of contents on that week’s Durkheim tome or unreadable Habermas book. It also gave me a lot of respect for how little we get to actually know. At the end of the day, three or so years of undergrad study, even rigorously pursued, is a pretty shallow gloss over big, dense ideas. If you’re lucky, you’re surfing one beach in an archipelago of very serious work and thought. On top of that, your brain is still transforming as it bumps into new ideas, people, and interests. You’re a college student, after all, you’ve got lots of cool stuff you should be doing instead of studying on a Friday afternoon! All of which is to say, attention is precious. Some ideas are worth a term paper, others an undergrad thesis, and a select few a dissertation or book. Social Studies is one of the few pedagogical models I encountered at Harvard or elsewhere that deliberately makes you narrow a scattered, diffuse enthusiasm for lots of ideas down to one sustained intellectual project, mindful of its scope and limits.         

One of the analogues for this kind of semi-disciplined thought work outside the academy is journalism, which relies on many of the same intellectual skills as academic work, but with actual deadlines and generally better writing. My day job is as a reporter at a public radio station in Alaska, and I do a lot of national freelance work for NPR and print outlets. I don’t really know how my concentration aided that career trajectory since everyone who sees “social studies” on my CV just assumes I learned to teach fifth graders about maps. But at the level of skills and practical abilities, Social Studies was awesome training for the kind of reporting I do. I can read documents and reports to quickly appreciate their relevance to a story I’m working on, whether that’s about municipal budget overages or military strategy. I can talk to lots of different people from different backgrounds and appreciate the arguments they’re making on their terms. Do I agree with what this particular politician is telling me about environmental regulations? Heck no, but I can locate and distill the architecture of her argument to convey the information fairly and accurately to a listener or reader. Am I personally cool with hunting walrus for their meat and ivory? I dunno yet, but I definitely want to try and appreciate the cultural, social, and economic structure of that before I render any kind of judgment (Truthfully: yes, I am cool with it). The world is weird, you’ve got to ask a lot of questions to figure out what’s what.            

If I can boil it down to a core benefit, Social Studies empowered me to be curious about lots of things and pursue a better understanding of them with the discipline, humility, and creativity that I think makes my journalism more interesting. And my interior life, too.