November 9, 2010

When Impractical Means Business

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Like most other liberal arts students, after confessing to majoring in comparative literature I often get hit with a genuinely curious, “What are you going to do with that?” Usually I just shrug and honestly reply that I haven’t the slightest idea. But the fact of the matter is that rather than limiting future career options, fields of study deemed “impractical” actually leave students more qualified for a broader variety of careers than specialized career preparation. This goes beyond a romantic declaration of the edification and understanding of humanness; the argument is not to belittle concern over future employment. Rather, what we learn when immersed in course work that values the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for its own sake makes us better at thinking, a skill necessary and valued in (one would hope) any career.

Two recent articles, one in a New York Times blog post on Nov. 3 written by Zac Bissonnette and one written by President David Skorton in the Huffington Post Nov. 7 support the importance of humanities, even in regards to the pressure to enter the job market. In an environment colored by rampant budget cuts and anxious students, the values of the general population have gone askew. Both articles make the same essential argument: An education should teach students to understand the world they live in and extract and create meaning from their learning. The job market changes constantly, and technology evolves, so specialized pre-career education may continually prove obsolete. Further, from a purely practical point of view, students studying subjects they genuinely love tend to have better GPAs — a definite bonus when entering the job market.

While it may appear counterintuitive, the skills acquired in pre-professional fields of study are not necessarily the most pertinent to success in the given field. According to a survey in The Canadian HR Reporter, as quoted by The New York Times, “Most employers cite communication skills as the most important skill for a candidate to possess, while generation Y (aged 18-35) believe employers are looking for experience …” This disjunction proliferates the emphasis on a set of skills rather than on intellectual growth. What better way can we learn to communicate than by reading and writing, discussion and reflection? Our ability to understand ourselves and our relationship to one another stems from the study and genesis of thought before specific skills. This ability to think critically is then permanently and irreplaceably valuable.

Of course, the misplaced value on pre-professional education didn’t spontaneously emerge in our generation alone. There is undoubtedly an expectation and value placed on being driven that comes from older generations. Quoted in the New York Times post is a letter to Ted Turner, founder of CNN, from his father: “I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major … I am a practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek? …” We often feel compelled to justify our academic choices in terms of future practicality. The point that President Skorton and The New York Times both make offers an answer to this snarky question: The study of classics and, by extension, the study of the human condition teaches us to communicate on both ends — we learn to express ourselves more eloquently and to understand the expression of others.

This is not to say that if you genuinely love being a business major, for example, then your major is not worthwhile. In fact, the argument is exactly the opposite. Study what you love, become educated the best you can in the field you are passionate about, and then use those skills to add something to the community. But the pressure to pick from a narrowing set of “practical” majors in order to secure a fruitful future is largely self-imposed and unnecessary. After all, at 18 years old, we should not be expected to cement ourselves in a career track. Instead, we should become smart, interested, experienced and knowledgeable — qualities almost universally applicable and desirable to employers.

While the promise of a stable and lucrative career may be enough motivation for many, there is also a larger reason to rethink the way we educate ourselves. As President Skorton wrote, “[We] must also recognize the value of the humanities as a discipline of research and critical analysis in its own right. The past cannot be changed, but our knowledge of it can be enhanced through rigorous study.”

What kind of society do we ultimately want to be a part of? Education should function to create a society of critical thinkers who question the powers that govern their lives and have an understanding of their effects on others. In a constantly changing world, the ability to question and identify problems proves much more valuable than learning sets of answers. Of course humanities can’t exist in isolation. Despite its general scariness, mathematics and sciences are also inarguably invaluable. But these fields also fit under the realm of the type of education described here: A reasserted emphasis on learning for its own sake — for the sake of creating better people and better citizens, and in the end, a stronger society.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be contacted at [email protected] Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter