The vast majority of first-year students feel the incredible pressure to develop some “practical” skills during their four years at Princeton. However, the most practical degrees might not be the ones we think.
The University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions hosted a discussion lastMonday on what it means to study the liberal arts. As expected, the two panel members, Robert George and Cornel West, praised the value of their own professions and fields of study. They spoke of the inherent value of pursuing truth for its own sake, of the courage that it takes to delve honestly into ideas different from your own. In reading famous works of literature, philosophy, and history, you are confronted by ideas contrary to your own and are forced to decide, as George put it, “what kind of human [you] will be with the time given.”
They also asked if there were consequences to studying the humanities, besides a less-than-six-figures starting salary out of Princeton — shocking as it sounds to the future financiers among us. Why should we read books or poems written by people that have been dead for hundreds (or thousands) of years?
Most people chalk up the value of a liberal arts education to something vague and hollow, like developing critical thinking skills. But if that were its sole appeal, I would have switched to something "practical" like ORFE a long time ago.
The value of the humanities is not simply “learning how to think,” as we hear so often. Certainly, reading Homer or Kant can teach you different ways of looking at the world and how to analyze texts critically. Yet Physics or Computer Science can, of course, do the same, stretching you and teaching you to think more flexibly. Staring at an inscrutable equation for three hours, until you finally look at it differently and the answer clicks into place, teaches you more than just an algorithm, but also a richer way of thinking, as it forces you to test your perseverance and problem-solving skills.
Regardless of what you study, you will become a better critical thinker. I’m certainly not here to condemn all STEM-related subjects or mindlessly propose that this school can only be a “liberal arts” school if all students are forced to read the same stories of law, libel, and love that I trudge through as an English major.
Whatever job you obtain, you will essentially get paid to direct your attention in a certain direction. Programmers are paid to look at code. Bankers are paid even more to look at numbers and models. Doctors look at wounds. English professors are paid (in theory) to look at great works of fiction.
A humanities degree enables a student to pay attention to what matters most – people. As students of the liberal arts, we can’t try and act like we are at a trade school. The founders of Princeton didn’t envision endowing us with certain narrow, specific skills and sending us off into the world to apply them. The great Princeton experiment and investment is about developing deep, rich, soulful humans.
As an English or History major, you can read Charles Dickens or Homer or Herodotus as a sort of complex crossword puzzle that requires a Ph.D. to decipher. But, as they are meant to be studied, the arts provide a path out of the self. They allow us to live for hours in the experiences, dilemmas, difficulties, joys, and sorrows of characters, changing as they do. As Northwestern professor Gary Saul Morison writes, “This long process [of studying the arts] offers a lot of practice in empathy, enough to make it a habit ... once we have the practice of that moment-to-moment feeling, we can infer what other people in real life are experiencing all the better.” In this way, some less practical degrees can lend themselves to some very applicable and immediately useful, but also deeply meaningful and uplifting, skills.
What you study is not about what you want to do or what job you want to get sometime in the future — it is about the kind of person that we want to be right now.
Jack Bryan is an English major from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at email@example.com