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Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

September 21, 2016

The Value of Arts

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A palpable — though often unspoken — tension between the humanities and STEM festers on this campus. The humanities’ utility has consistently been questioned — and perhaps with good reason. Why would one ever need to relay the myth of Prometheus or know that Edgar Degas was a French Impressionist painter unless one was competing on Jeopardy! and had the potential to win hundreds of dollars?

It is especially difficult to justify the relevancy of the humanities curriculum in times of economic upheaval. A 2015 study conducted at Georgetown University found that the top five unemployed majors nationally were liberal arts majors. Moreover, studies show that even when humanities majors are employed, their starting salaries are significantly less than those of their STEM peers. According to Forbes Magazine, the highest paid workers upon graduation are those who have a degree in computer engineering, chemical engineering, computer science, information sciences and systems and finance. Couple this information with the fact that the average Class of 2016 college graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt and a humanities degree hardly seems worthwhile at all.

However, Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English, argues that studying the humanities is far from the futile pursuit it is framed to be. In his 48 years of teaching at Cornell, Schwarz has worked with countless humanities students who have fared well for themselves. These students — who after leaving Cornell went on to pursue successful writing, academic, medical, law and finance careers — are the fodder and inspiration behind Schwarz’s latest book, How To Succeed in College and Beyond, which he describes as an exercise in “balancing the joy of learning with the practicality of learning,” and a “defense of the humanities.”

At a “Chats in the Stacks” lecture held at Olin Library last Wednesday, the Frederick J. Whiton Professor of English literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow not only pushed back against the cliché narrative of humanities majors burrowing in their parents’ basements after college, but also spoke fervently about the necessity of art in our lives. “The arts offer a lifetime of pleasure. They take us into imagined worlds and help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live, while offering insight on other topics of historical, cultural and social importance,” he said.

Schwarz elaborated that we can better understand the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s skepticism about the Western Enlightenment and its reliance on reason if we have read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whom Putin lists among his favorite authors. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as well as Tolstoy’s War and Peace are sources for Putin’s embrace of Russian exceptionalism, anti-utilitarianism, belief in the Russian soul and its ties to the land, and the Russian Orthodox Church with its tradition of mystical iconography.  Putin also derives some of his concept of strong and flamboyant leadership from the Czars whom, he believed, despite all their faults represented Russian national unity.

Perhaps Putin is misreading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and overlooking the human aspects of their narratives. Regardless, we can better understand Putin’s conservative and xenophobic government through the aforementioned lens of literature and history.

The Russian novels are not the only books that can inform our perception of the world around us. During his lecture, Schwarz remarked that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can help us comprehend European imperial greed and exploitation of Africans. Similarly, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India grants its readers the opportunity to realize the ongoing divide between Muslims and Hindus in India and the country’s current efforts to move beyond its colonial past. Finally, Schwarz explained how Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” transformed the unsuccessful 1916 Easter Rebellion into a mythic event that helped build momentum for the successful Irish Revolution of the early 1920s.

In order to move forward, we must look to the past and understand the political and social climates of bygone years that have led us to the point we are at now. Art has the ability to make us more informed citizens, better able to grapple with the complexities and calamities of life and to institute social change. Beyond this practicality, however, art brings unparalleled joy into our world. “The Arts—literature, the visual arts, dance, music are crucial,” advises Schwarz. “No matter what you’re studying, allow them to be part of your life.”

Gwen Aviles is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gaviles@cornellsun.com. 

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