The case for context credits

The glory of context credits is in the name: context. Complain as we may about having to learn something often far from the realm of our typical studies, these courses provide context for what we’re passionate about; they give us a more robust understanding of the world we live in and highlight skills that flourish in different academic fields. These transferable skills are crucial in forming a solid educational foundation, and even more so, learning to apply our skills and understanding across disciplines is how we become insightful, critical academics.

Science gives us an understanding of truth, of the rigor involved in a field that has always been regarded warily because of the tendency for scientific discovery to upset the status quo. We totally don’t have to worry about emissions because scientists literally telling us to are just spreading fake news — or, if we were having this discussion a couple centuries ago, witchcraft. While I don’t need to know what the Chandrasekhar limit is when studying human resources, it is myopic to think I did not benefit from taking astronomy. Trying to understand the way the world and universe work is a noble pursuit that highlights the importance of being rigorous, scientific analysts of what we take for granted. This way we can learn from something as simple as observing some falling apples.

In humanities, we apply a critical analysis lens to humanity, unpacking often-abstract fields like history and language. In the one classics course I took, the professor emphasized that myth is fascinating because there is an element of uncertainty — we can never know for sure what a storyteller meant, but we can analyze what was likely given the tone of the piece and its context, and possibly more importantly, we can analyze how a myth may have affected or been affected by its social and cultural context, how it continues to play a role in modern cultures and more. Accepting uncertainty in our fields of study and working within disciplines where there’s no one correct answer can be tough, especially for those of us who literally fact-check ourselves on our phones during conversations. Shifting the focus from getting the right answer, as so many of us feel earlier education programmed us to do, toward analysis and critique is crucial in the humanities. That analytical mindset, comfort working with uncertainty and general knowledge of the human condition are useful in any discipline.

Social sciences help us to apply approaches we consider more in line with hard sciences to fields we associate with the humanities. At Brock this is first-year economics for a lot of us — hello, Goodman friends — and that’s something I want to latch onto. Economics is totally a man-made field. It exists because of how we organize ourselves as societies and would not exist independently of humanity. Yet we can apply math and formulas to predict changes in pricing, we can lovingly map out curves of supply and demand — we can work with uncertainty and observe patterns in this fascinating thing we have built to try to understand it through scientific approaches. While the field has attributes of humanities and sciences, it is its own beast with its own lessons. There is not one way to learn about our world. We can use critique and analysis to study the human condition, we can explore it scientifically, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe around us and we can apply techniques and understanding from all of these strategies.

There’s a tendency to discount learning if it isn’t explicitly and directly related to some goal and administered formally. We’ve seen the posts online complaining about learning algebra instead of how to do taxes or make a budget. To an extent, I understand that. But also, it diminishes the role we each play in our own learning. I do use algebra fairly often because I am studying business in university, but even if I didn’t, those early math classes equipped me with comfort navigating math problems, and from there, any problem. Look for what is known, determine what you need to find out and figure out what approach is required. This process is relevant beyond the obvious scope of the class. So when I hear people saying that context credits are a waste of time, or fun but not good for anything, I feel sorry for the speaker. There is so much you will miss out on in life if you maintain such a narrow idea of what constitutes learning, and if you don’t take the initiative to make connections, to apply skills across disciplines and to find opportunities to learn where they may not be obvious.


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