Catherine Ward – Passion, Purpose, and Becoming a Person


Duke’s mission statement expresses a desire for the university to cultivate “knowledge in service to society”, which directly aligns with the goal of an intellectual community. After all, this phrase indicates that all students are driven by their natural curiosities, actively trying to find “the place where [their] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.[1] This is my personal favorite understanding of purpose, coined by author and theologian Frederick Buechner. To find this “deep gladness”, or a sense of personal fulfillment from your work, exploring the humanities is an essential component of an undergraduate education. However, since the 1960s, undergraduate interest in the humanities has faded, as students often favor a concentration in more occupation-oriented majors.

The general public often misunderstands the inherent value of the humanities, according to the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. This organization defines the humanities as “the disciplines that help us understand and define cultures, and human experience.”[2] Too many people see the humanities as frivolous subjects, and this in itself is problematic. These individuals presuppose that triviality, or the lack of seriousness that is often associated with the humanities, is negative. They neglect to recognize the essential role that seemingly insignificant enjoyment plays in pursuing one’s purpose. I would argue that, to find purpose in our lives as Buechner presents it, we must not only do good for the world, but we must enjoy our endeavors. In doing so, we unite our occupation with what we find provides pleasure, a too often underestimated sentiment. Underlying any sense of enjoyment is a valuable level of play or passion. So how can we attempt to ascertain our own human experience, our own passions, if we don’t first delve into the collective experiences that came before us? Fortunately, timelessly capturing the repetitive themes of human history, humanistic pursuits allow students to unearth their innate curiosities.

Often, as we grow up, we are taught to curb our inquisitive nature. Instructors seek to efficiently carry out the day’s lesson plan, and we learn that expressing our curiosities strays from the outlined schedule. If we are primed to quiet our spirit of inquiry, by the time we reach a college or university, we forget the freedom of curiosity. In a piece for n+1, Astra Taylor, an activist who outlines the problems she recognizes in American public schools, explains her childhood “unschooling”, a time in which she learned on her own or with her siblings without enforced rules regarding her education. She expresses, “My parents eschewed coercion and counted on our curiosity, which they understood to be a most basic human capacity. This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?” [3] Taylor argues that she valued her intellectual pursuits most when allowed the freedom of curiosity, while she was “unschooled” but intensely learning about themes she chose and enjoyed. In fact, during her time at a top-ranked university, she notes that the other students lack inquisitiveness; foregoing a pursuit of passion, they instead act as “excellent sheep”,[4] sticking within the metaphorical herd of the American school system in order to achieve societally acknowledged success. Their triumph comes at the cost of their individuality, at least to a degree.

“This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?” (Taylor, 45)

When I came to college, prematurely dreaming of a career as a lawyer in the public sector, I knew I cared about social justice, service ethics, and cultural duke_chapel_spireunderstanding. During my first year at Duke, when speaking to a dean about my desire to attend law school and what I should do to properly prepare, I was told, “You have law school to become a lawyer. Now is the time to become a person.” Inspired, I decided to enjoy exploring various academic departments, trying to better understand why I care about understanding different cultures and the injustices faced by diverse populations. I quickly found that studying the humanities, specifically English, intrinsically resonates with me. Literature exists without borders. A work of literature is not bound by time or place: unconfined, prose and poetry teach students that our interests relate to preceding periods of human life around the world. Analyzing literary works, we can better understand our place in an increasingly globalized environment, coming to recognize why our thoughts matter, even why they may influence what is yet to come.

“Now is the time to become a person.”

Through studying the humanities, I have gained a greater understanding of the conditions and feelings underlying immigration, racial discrimination, and cultural identity. Recognizing these issues in a bildungsroman context by reading texts like Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, my interest in the inequities faced by youth grew, sparking a desire to support young people of diverse backgrounds. Novels in the bildungsroman genre, a name derived from the German terms Bildung, meaning education, and Roman, meaning novel, present a character’s formative years, often delivering a coming-of-age story. Díaz’s aforementioned novel straddles themes of a traditional bildungsroman and a migration narrative. As a bildungsroman, the novel presents second-generation Dominican immigrant Oscar, who grows up in New Jersey as an overweight ghetto nerd and feels like a cultural outsider; the text also chronicles Oscar’s mother moving to the U.S. to escape Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic (D.R.). Bildungsroman works grant powerful insights into the adolescent experience, a critical time in which a young person develops his or her worldviews and self-conception. Oscar’s bildungsroman grants a reader with an understanding of how difficult it is to find social acceptance as a misfit second-generation immigrant, an individual who should be able to claim two homelands but is often not recognized as belonging to either.

Themes present in an immigration bildungsroman highlight the prickly truths of cultural bounds. Though Oscar desperately seeks companionship, he often feels marginalized from both his Dominican heritage and his American surroundings. Starting his academic career at Rutgers University, excited to be away from his family, Oscar optimistically imagines, “among these thousands of young people he would find someone like him.” However, he instead is forced to recognize the difficult realities of straddling multiple cultures: “The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy.”[5] Díaz, narrating through hyper-masculine young Dominican-American Yunior, integrates Spanglish, a linguistic mishmash of English and Spanish, into this account. By combining the two languages, one from each of the communities that excludes Oscar, Díaz highlights Oscar’s jumbled sense of cultural belonging. Oscar repeats the same statement in different ways, emphatically employing all possible subject-verb positions as he desperately tries to prove that he belongs with those who share his Dominican heritage. However, despite his efforts to appeal to both Americans and Dominicans, his use of both English and Spanish stresses that he is not fully a part of either group.

“But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy.” (Díaz, 49)

Studying stories like Oscar’s, I stay in conversation with myself.[6] This notion echoes Masaki Suwa and Barbara Tversky’s idea that drawing “is a means of orchestrating a conversation with yourself”, as presented in Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, a comic book style dissertation that pushes the boundaries of academia by primarily using image to present a scholarly argument. Suwa and Tversky assert that drawing allows us to “step outside ourselves” in order to see our thoughts. Analyzing literature is my way of stepping outside myself, as I discern how the deliberate yet unexpected peculiarities of an author’s language reveal a larger truth about the text.

A visual depiction of Suwa and Tversky's stance, as recorded in Sousanis' work.

A visual depiction of Suwa and Tversky’s stance, as recorded in Sousanis’ work.

Puzzling through Oscar’s repetitive Spanglish as he hopes to claim his place as a Dominicano, I more powerfully understand the immigrant experience for a young man trying to figure out his identity. I discover that, while desiring to escape his dorky identity in order to fit in with those from a land his mother fled, while living in a country his older sister hopes to abandon, Oscar muddles through the difficulties of assimilation and has his coming-of-age story. By stepping outside of myself, ignoring my emotional reactions to the text in order to examine the language, I am able to discern what an author chooses to emphasize about a character’s experience. However, the emphatic language that most sparks my curiosity and excites me often indicates what in the text I want to connect with uncritically.[7] That is, it helps me understand what language captivates me so much that I want to empathize with the characters, emotionally involving myself with the text. When I let the language connect with me on an emotional level, moved to a reaction by recognizing how an author brings attention to the discrimination that characters undergo, I realize these moments in characters’ experiences connect to my passions.

Determining my passions through studying the humanities has fueled my continued desire for a legal education, which will allow me to work towards reducing the systematic inequities faced by young people of diverse backgrounds. I am determined to unite my passions with what I recognize as the world’s needs, striving to find my purpose. In the process, I intend to take advantage of every opportunity for intellectual community. A sometimes utopian-sounding ideal, an intellectual community allows that students merge passion and professionalism. In doing so, we actively pursue what we consider to be a meaningful life, appreciating the trivialized in an effort to better understand what matters most.


[1] Though Buechner writes with a religious lens, his description of “the place God calls you” in his piece “Vocation” provides a relatable definition of purpose, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

[2] While others may support different definitions regarding the humanities, this description in Defining the Humanities— A Work in Progress provides a strong basic interpretation.

[3] Discussing alternative education in n+1, Taylor draws upon her personal experiences to question our expectations; we often revere education as a means for change, but does the American school system really act more as a prison system, squashing freedom of thought? (45)

[4] Taylor’s argument shares many commonalities with this metaphor, presented in Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

[5] In Díaz’s acclaimed novel, readers meet an immigrant family characterized by literal and figurative escape. Oscar’s mother flees the D.R. after getting dangerously mixed up in an affair with a man married to Trujillo’s sister, his rebellious sister briefly runs away from home during her teenage days and later dreams of moving to Japan to teach, and comic-book loving Oscar constantly hopes to escape his dorky identity and find love. He seeks to assert himself as a Dominicano, but his status as a nerd bars him from acceptance (49).

[6] Suwa and Tversky’s ideas are expressed dynamically, not only through text but also through image, in Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (79).

[7] Michael Warner, in his piece “Uncritical Reading”, explains that critical reading requires we distance ourselves from the text we read, which causes us to lose a certain emotional reaction to the readings with which we engage.

Works Cited

Buechner, Frederick. “Vocation.” Schwehn, Mark R., and Dorothy C. Bass. “Vocation.” Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006, 111-112. Print.

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York, NY: Free, 2014. Print.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead Books, 2007.

Humanities Council of Washington, DC. Defining the Humanities— A Work in Progress. Humanities DC. N.p., 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. Print.

Taylor, Astra. “Unschooling.” N+1 Nov.-Dec. 2013: 44-47. Print.

Warner, Michael. “Uncritical Reading.” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical. New York: Routledge, 2004. 13-38. Print.