Major Insight Episode 13 Find Your Purpose and Place in the Humanities (Part 1)

jacob bruggemen

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The humanities enrich our lives in illuminating ways. They teach us to think critically, adapt to change, to ask the right questions. They teach us about ourselves, and even what it means to be human.

As one of Miami’s most high profile students, Jacob Bruggeman has been an outspoken champion of the humanities. On this episode, he explains how studying the humanities will help you succeed in college, and in life.

Jacob has also been the host of Major Insight since it launched. But as he prepares for life after graduation, this episode also marks a new season, as our new host, Peter Everett, talks to Jacob about his remarkable journey through college. 


Featured Majors

History, Political Science, Philosophy, Literature

Featured Awards, Scholarships, and Organizations:

Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Prize, Geoffrion Family Fellowship, Altman Fellows Program, Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program, Miami Family Fund, Ohio Public Leader Fellowship, The Humanities Center.


Full Episode Also Available on YouTube

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. Welcome to an all new season of Major Insight, where today we have a very special yet familiar guest. Throughout his time as a college student Jacob Bruggeman has been an outspoken champion of the humanities in all its forms, and he's become one of Miami University's most high profile students.

James Loy: As a history and political science major, Jacob was one of only 15 undergraduates nationwide to receive the History Scholar Award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He is also the recipient of Miami's prestigious Goldman prize, and he's received a Geoffrion Family Fellowship, which is the highest honor awarded by Miami's Humanities Center. Jacob's also been the host of Major Insight since this podcast launched last year, but as he prepares for life after graduation himself, today we welcome our new host, Peter Everett, who talks to Jacob about his remarkable journey through college.

Peter Everett: Hi Jacob, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing today?

Jacob Bruggeman: I'm doing all right, Peter. Thanks for having me on.

Peter Everett: Of course. I mean, it's your podcast still, right? Technically.

Jacob Bruggeman: Well, let's not get stuck in the technicalities here.

Peter Everett: Oh, okay. Okay.

Jacob Bruggeman: It's yours now, or it will be soon enough.

Peter Everett: So, what did you major at when you were here at Miami, and what kind of research were you involved in?

Jacob Bruggeman: I studied history and political science, and then I also graduated with a master's in political science with a focus on political theory. My time here was sort of marked by different phases of research and different research projects. I started freshman year by going into office hours like every freshman should at Miami, and talking with a professor who's now left, Aaron Cavin, about starting doing some research on homelessness in Cincinnati. From there, that research materialized over the next, I think, year and a half into my honors thesis in history.

Jacob Bruggeman: That aside, I did some research in political science on Alexis de Tocqueville and his concept of intellectual authority in America. I did research on science fiction and the executive authority and types of power that were portrayed in those works of fiction. Then finally in my last year I continued and developed that research on homelessness into a project on poverty in the Gilded Age and progressive eras, which is loosely-

Peter Everett: Wow.

Jacob Bruggeman: ... the basis for my graduate work in the upcoming year at the University of Cambridge.

Peter Everett: Of all of those research projects, which one really stole your heart?

Jacob Bruggeman: The most heart stealing, so to speak, project or research endeavor I undertook here was in my junior year. It was being involved in the Geoffrion Family Fellowship with the Altman Program out of the Miami Humanities Center. For those listeners who don't know, it's an annual program put together around a certain theme, and the year that I was involved as a student Fellow the theme was urban futures, which is of course related to the topic that I was working on-

Peter Everett: Homelessness.

Jacob Bruggeman: ... homelessness, and then my broader interests in urban history, and urban economics, and all these things. That was just a wonderful year filled with collaboration with faculty, the speakers, other students, people I became good friends with throughout that year. It was very rewarding.

Peter Everett: How would you advise any student who's interested in maybe doing research in humanities eventually becoming involved in that Altman Program? What kind of steps would you advise them to take?

Jacob Bruggeman: Well, for students who are interested in studying the humanities or getting involved in the Humanities Center, what they first must do is realize that Miami's campus and college campuses across America are thick with misconceptions about what the humanities are and what studying that means. In my own case, history, I sort of came in to Miami as a normal guy, having played football, goofed off with my friends, and played far too many video games in high school. I didn't consider myself a serious student, not that I do now, but I definitely found more fulfillment.

Peter Everett: Come on, you do a little bit.

Jacob Bruggeman: I do a little bit, but I've certainly found more fulfillment in my studies. The point being that I came into college thinking I was going to major in finance like the culture seems to tell us we need to do, we need to major in these STEM fields and whatnot. So, I came in not really knowing, even myself, despite being this advocate for the humanities today, that I would go on to study them.

Jacob Bruggeman: What we need to realize, and what students who are interested in the humanities must realize, is that the humanities are more than a path to employment, which they are. They're about teaching us how to live well. And so, before anybody delves into the humanities, it's worth reflecting on what they mean for us, or for you here and now and today, especially in a culture where they seem to have been devalued.

Jacob Bruggeman: Again, in history there's this stereotype that the history major is archival wrapped or somebody who doesn't see the light of day save when he crawls out of the library or when she crawls out of the library in the evening, and that's just not true. History is as engaged with the present as one can make it. There are plenty of history students, myself included, who like spending time in the archive. But that doesn't mean that studying history means you'll be locked up in the ivory tower, secluded from society. No. Studying history, studying English literature, studying languages means that you're engaging with the world in ways that we, as a civilization, have been trying to engage with the world for millennia.

Jacob Bruggeman: There's something quite beautiful, to borrow a line from Whitman, about tracing that, "The spirit that trails in the lines underfoot," right? I mean, there's a real sense of purpose that you can glean from studying things that our ancestors, people 50 years ago and 500 ago have studied, right? The questions that animate our lives and that will continue to animate the lives of Americans and people all over the world, hypothetically and forever, right?

Jacob Bruggeman: So, studying the humanities, we have to approach it today beginning with that proposition that it's about more than just that research paper. It's about more than coming out and getting a job. I recognize that comes from a place, a little bit of privilege, right? I mean, there's a sense in which the humanities do seem like useless ornaments and graces from ages past. I can understand when people think that that's the case. But again, when we recognize that these are ways of engaging with the world, not studying dusty scrolls, so to speak, we can approach them differently and employ them differently in our own lives.

Peter Everett: I think they're also seen that way too just because they're seen maybe as a bad investment because college now is so expensive, but I think once people realize that not only is it a great investment in your career, but also in you yourself personally and maybe developing your worldview, and how you see the world, and how you approach problems and all that kind of stuff.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely. I mean, there's a sense in which people don't think that they're a practical investment today, but what you said about them teaching us to be good people as well as employable people, which it does turn you into, is quite sure. I mean, we do need to be 'active souls', as Emerson tells us, and to do that you need to be able to interpret and deal with the challenges and all of the stimuli around you. What a better way to do that than by starting with studying the past, or starting with studying the greatest books of our lives and of our histories.

Jacob Bruggeman: Why is it the case that studying those things prepares us to deal with the world? Because, they give us access to treasure troves of experiences other than our own. I mean, studying history is sometimes looking at boring ledgers, it is sometimes looking at boring newspaper clippings, but it's not always that way. Studying history can be reading somebody's journal entry after their mother died, after they lost a sibling or a child. It can be interpreting speeches that people gave at critical moments, at make or break moments, so to speak, in the course of a conflict or a civilization.

Jacob Bruggeman: The point of all that being that history in this case, literature of course the same, philosophy, all these things, give us access to the way other people have dealt with other situations that probably are similar to our own. The other thing that the humanities do, which sets us up for success in the workplace, is develop a flexibility. Because, as I've been saying, they accustom you to deal with challenges, to deal with ever changing circumstances, right?

Jacob Bruggeman: So what they do, by putting you in a situation in which you have to sift through all these documents and you have to manage all this information by this date, otherwise you're going to fail a course or whatever, you're going to lose funding. Yeah, you're nodding your head. I mean, that's true. Essays are on deadlines, and the deadlines force us to interpret, right, and coalesce all this information to draw threads through these sources. What does that teach us essay by essay? It teaches how to deal with being uncomfortable in situations in which we have doubts about things, and what a better way to prepare people for any situation in a private sector where things are changing day to day, market forces are shifting the landscape, so to speak.

Jacob Bruggeman: But then also, what a better way to prepare people for being human and living lives of their own on their own terms, right? The study of the humanities at its best teaches us to live the questions as the Austrian Hungarian poet Rilke said, it teaches us to, "Dwell in uncertainty and be comfortable there." There's something really rewarding about that, particularly in a day and age when we're Googling everything, right? So, I mean, there's a reward to studying the humanities beyond, say, gainful employment.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. It should be no surprise to anybody listening that Jacob was featured on Miami's Great Minds Instagram, and he had posters all over campus of his face. How did they make you feel, Jacob?

Jacob Bruggeman: Uh, it is what it is. It certainly, I think, was a signal to me that the humanities have a place on Miami's campus. Because there is often … we often operate, especially on college campuses, in these sorts of echo chambers. Like, in the history department, with my mentors, you know, Dr. Offenburger, Dr. de Boer, Dr. Brown, Dr. Conn. Dr. Schakenbach Regele. I can go on and on. And I know most of the department … see them later today. In that setting, I’m getting negative feedback signals when they’re needed. And I’m getting positive feedback when I’m doing something well. So, in that environment, I was getting a lot of signals about what I should be doing, how I could be doing things better, and what I’m doing right.

Across the university, across the campus so to speak, it is not always clear where you fit as a humanities major, particularly today -- as we’ve been talking about -- where majors that aren’t the humanities, majors on campus, seem to gain a lot of attention. So for me, being fortunate enough to have my face plastered around campus – if that’s a fortune …

Peter Everett: I know at the time, you told me to stop talking about it. I jabbed you about it all the time.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, well, that was probably true. But the point is that it was a signal to me that there is a hunger in the administration here, I think particularly, and then also among the faculty and students, to rebalance things a little bit, to reemphasize aspects of what a humanistic education looks like particularly today.

Jacob Bruggeman: It is what it is. It certainly, I think, was a signal to me that the humanities have a place on Miami's campus. There is a hunger in the administration here, I think particularly, and then also among the faculty and students, to rebalance things a little bit, to reemphasize aspects of what a humanistic education looks like particularly today.

Peter Everett: I think people are hungering for it just because of the questions that it answers, and the questions it brings up, and the way it helps, because I know as a college student when you come in you're in a whole new world, you're on your own. You have to answer a lot of life's questions and develop your own worldview, and answer a lot of life's questions for yourself. Your parents aren't there anymore to define what's right and wrong, and what is a good path to take. You get to kind of really define your own path, and with that comes wrestling with that kind of stuff. Humanities really answers those questions, I think.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Or, at the very least, the humanities point us towards answers that have been given to those questions before. Studying the humanities can help us discover the stories that sustain and help explain us to ourselves, right? I mean, there's a reason that when you read a good book or you read a really powerful poem, you're sort of speechless for a minute or two, because these things help sustain us through all the crap in life. There's a real sense in which revisiting the past, revisiting great literature, helps us to move through and soldier through what are otherwise sometimes tough times.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. And you'll have those in college, anyone listening.

Jacob Bruggeman: You will have those in college. What you said about to come into college and being on your own for the first time, that's a real struggle, I think, for a lot of people. It was a struggle for me, especially walking that balance with wanting to study what I wanted to study and then feeling like I needed to study what everybody else was studying. I mean, I came into the university as a finance major, and I changed last minute on my drive down for my parents to drop me off, and I had to reschedule my courses.

Jacob Bruggeman: I can remember when I told my mom and dad that I was changing to history, they sort of had this sullen look on their face. They were like, "Oh God, what is he doing?" I can't fault them because there's a climate of misconceptions about what studying history is and what it means for your quote unquote career. Even though now that seems to have different connotations, right? I mean, on average we have 10 different jobs in our lifetimes and three different careers. So, what does it even mean anymore to have a career?

Peter Everett: Absolutely.

Jacob Bruggeman: But what the humanities do, rather than preparing you for a particular career, say like being a physicist, and of course if you want to be a physicist you should study physics, you probably shouldn't study history exclusively, you can study it again as a double major. But this is just to say that there are a lot of fields that require you to have a specialized skillset that you can't get in other places, right?

Jacob Bruggeman: Like a lot of the high finance of today, right, that requires a lot of intense data analytics training. You can't really get that, let's say, from majoring in philosophy, but by, say, double majoring in philosophy, you're augmenting a separate skillset, rather a disposition to being comfortable with that doubt, with that uncertainty that you're inevitably going to be dealing with in the workplace anyway. So, being a double major in cases like that where you are learning, say, these quote unquote hard skills, and then building this ability to move through the world sanely and well, you're setting yourself up for success there.

Peter Everett: Hopefully, if there's any parents listening to this, it'll help them understand that some of these majors that might seem impractical actually can really help their kids.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. In my own experience, I've used my education in history, in political science, in literature, despite it not being a major, to I think have some professional success. For three winters in a row at Miami, I took advantage of what's called an Ohio Public Leader Fellowship, which places you with alumni working throughout the state in public policy or politics.

Jacob Bruggeman: For the first of those three winters, I worked for a lobbying group in Columbus, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. For the second of those three winters I worked for the speaker of the Ohio House, his chief of staff, Mike Dittoe, a great alumnus. And for the third winter, this past winter, I worked for Morgan Township down the road. In each of those settings I think I succeeded, but that was only made possible by this stepping into a new environment and being comfortable with the new environment itself, right? Because I had studied history, I had studied these things, which taught me how to cope with the self-doubt I was feeling.

Peter Everett: Absolutely.

Jacob Bruggeman: I mean, definitely feeling self-doubt when I'm writing cemetery rules and regulations for Morgan Township. Who writes cemetery rules and regulations? I have. But things like that, when you approach a new situation and you have to do something that you're uncomfortable doing, you're certainly leveraging that disposition that you build as a student of the humanities, right? You're comfortable with learning new things, and you're comfortable with self-doubt even when you are learning those things.

Jacob Bruggeman: This past summer was another example. I worked for USA Today, their headquarters in McLean, Virginia. I'd never studied journalism in my life. I mean, I had a few columns in the Miami Student. I had a few columns on the Cincinnati Inquirer, but here I am-

Peter Everett: Only a few columns, no big deal.

Jacob Bruggeman: Well, the point is this, I'm not a journalism major and despite having learned how to write through history, and mind you, I would not have considered myself a writer before coming to college and studying history, right? But that has made me into where I would consider myself a writer. But I came out to DC and entered the newsroom, which was a scary experience, and that was a challenge, but I rose to it in no small part because I studied these fields that built in me, I think, an ability to deal with challenges. I think that's true of every humanities student at Miami, and then of anybody who has-

Peter Everett: A good foundation, I think.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Anybody who has a foundation or a grounding in a liberal arts education, which Miami does do a good job at.

Peter Everett: They really were what got me interested in the humanities in the first place. I definitely knew that that was something that I was really interested in just from my classes in high school. But I took a philosophy class with Dr. King in my freshman year and I was sold, even though I ended up majoring in history and comparative religion.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Whatever you're studying, maybe it's 20th century feminist literature, maybe it's like me, economic history in the Gilded Age, maybe it's the philosophy of death. Whatever you're studying in the humanities, however particular or seemingly obscure it is, you're developing an ability to deal with serious questions, to deal with them in a timely and orderly fashion. And also, you're learning how to cogently write these thoughts, write these questions down. That prepares you to be in a newsroom. That prepares you to be in a bank. That prepares you to be in businesses of a lot of different kinds, and that prepares you to also live well. That prepares you to be a good citizen, right?

Jacob Bruggeman: I mean, being able to think through and interpret your own experiences means that you'll be able to write letters to the editor for your hometown paper. You'll be able to better understand the political events in your community. This is not to say you can't do these things if you don't study the humanities, but it's to say that the premise of the humanities is that those are important things.

Jacob Bruggeman: We start from that proposition, and by studying them in sociology, or history, or philosophy rather than having you memorize Excel functions, or memorize different textbook phrases about the production possibility curve or whatever you're memorizing over, say, like a business program or an economics program. And that's not to poo-poo those programs. That's just to say that in the humanities we're focused on developing you as a person, and you do develop as a person in the humanities. You're not developing as a future employee, which seems to be a fundamental distinction between a lot of the STEM fields today and fields like history. And by nature of the study itself you're focused on you, you're focused on who you want to be.

Peter Everett: You have a lot more control of your own destiny.

Jacob Bruggeman: No, you're absolutely right. I mean, you have more control over what you're studying. You can develop it and your very personal and unique ways based on your sets of interests, your preferences. But then on a more, I think, important note, the control you have enables you to bring those fields to bear on the most important and pressing questions in our lives.

Jacob Bruggeman: In my own time here at Miami I spent, as I mentioned, about three, probably all four years I guess, studying homelessness in Cincinnati, studying urban poverty, studying the dynamics of power and struggle in the American city. I leveraged the study of history, which I had thought was some sort of ivory tower archival pursuit, as something that I could use to interpret a problem in the American city, a timeless problem, homelessness, that is making no shortage of headlines.

Peter Everett: And that kind of latitude is something Miami does a really good job at providing undergraduates with.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. How it provides that latitude has a lot to do with funding in different sources of different resources available on campus and also different programs. There are no shortage of them. There's the Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program, which I took advantage of to study science fiction and the American city in science fiction. There are programs like I mentioned, the Undergraduate Research Award. There's the Miami Family Fund, which I used to help fund a trip up to Dayton to do interviews there. I could go on and on.

Jacob Bruggeman: And so, for students listening and for parents listening, one of the things you've got to tune as early as you can are these sources of funds, these resources available on campus. And of course, there's no better way to do that than my talking with faculty. It's a cliché, but office hours are the best opportunity you have as a student to, one, make a connection with a professor that could lead to stuff like a letter of recommendation, or a nomination for different university awards, or more fundamentally that could lead to a connection that will be the basis of a research project. That research project might develop into your writing sample for grad school. It might develop into a publication. It might develop into any number of things.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. You definitely gave a great case for the humanities.

Jacob Bruggeman: Thanks.

James Loy: Among his many and varied college interests, Jacob Bruggeman studied history and political science at Miami university, and on the next episode, we'll continue this conversation with Jacob, so please join us for part two next time as we also continue to welcome Peter Everett as the new host of this new season of Major Insight.



Featured Majors: 

History, Political Science, Philosophy, Literature

Featured Awards, Scholarships, and Organizations:

Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Prize, Geoffrion Family Fellowship, Altman Fellows Program, Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program, Miami Family Fund, Ohio Public Leader Fellowship, The Humanities Center.