The wealthiest person is a pauper at times / compared to the man with a satisfied mind. – Red Hayes
It has been four years since I graduated from a private liberal arts university, so I have now been an alum of that institution for as long as I was a student. I have learned a lot in this time and my life now is very different from how I imagined it would be, but I remain as certain as I was when I received my diploma that having had the opportunity to study at such a place means I am one of the most fortunate people in the world. But ongoing debates about the utility of studying the humanities, ideology and politics on college campuses, and the impact of student debt on millennials have all contributed to some complicated feelings about the institution itself and how I spent my time there.
I thrived at school. You go live on this beautiful campus full of smart, creative people and they stuff you full of information. It’s endlessly stimulating. At the time I did not fully appreciate how incredible it is to live in a place where your primary responsibility is to learn.
One professor who made a big impression on me was an Armenian raised by refugees from Turkey. He grew up in cities around the Middle East before immigrating to the United States from Beirut. This person knows half a dozen languages and helped found the preeminent scholarly journal on Thomas Pynchon before getting bored with that and moving on to found the preeminent scholarly journal on the study of diasporas.
I took a seminar with this professor in my final semester called “Diasporas, Transnationalism, and Globalization.” The class was a survey of diaspora studies, and our readings and discussions offered insights into the economic, cultural, and political implications of global flows of people, information, goods, and capital. However, while the content of the class continues to illuminate my day-to-day, what I remember most fondly about this seminar and this professor is the time when, as our final semester drew to a close, he pulled me and some of my other senior classmates aside to ask about our post-graduation plans. We all shrugged and said we didn’t know. I really wish I had a recording or transcript of exactly what our teacher then told us, as it would probably be bolstering to hear from time to time, when my doubts are winning battles against my convictions. But I will have to make due with a summary of what I remember.
Basically, he described his own surprising career path, which began with marine biology, and went on to say something like, “You know the fall of the Soviet Union? No one predicted that. We live in a radically uncertain world. Anything is possible and not even the government knows what will happen next. I recommend that you not plan more than five years in advance.”
I believe that the study of literature teaches us how to face the contradictions and messiness that characterize real life, and other disciplines in the humanities provide lessons that can help young people today navigate lives which will be characterized by instability and change.
It will not help you to be a trained accountant in twenty years if all of the accountants are replaced by AI (to gesture at a popular scenario), but if you have studied the liberal arts then you should have at the very least learned how to assimilate new information, be mentally agile, and continue to learn and adapt. You should be able to teach yourself accounting now and be ready to do something else, if need be, when the time comes. We will all need to keep learning in order to respond to shifts in the nature of work.
I learned interesting facts and concepts, but this kind of education is not primarily about the information students consume. Much of that will be forgotten. The greatest opportunity this kind of school offers is (ironically, since it is said that humanities students don’t know how to do anything) represented more by the activities students engage in than the specific content of their readings.
So what did I actually do every day? For the most part I read a lot and then wrote in response to what I was reading. I consumed and processed works of art, literature, and scholarship and then articulated original arguments about them, supported by close readings of those texts or my own further research. Some skills that can be honed by studying the humanities:
- The ability to communicate; to articulate oneself and listen to others.
- The ability to gather information from many sources and make meaning out of it.
- The ability to think critically; to interrogate ideas and arguments, including one’s own.
- The ability to more effectively learn new things.
To be sure, one does not have to go to college in order to learn these things. School is a useful institution for some people more than others. The main problem is the cost of school, and the disconnect between what school costs and what students can expect to be paid once they graduate.
I think that the explicit value of this kind of education is ignored to everyone’s detriment. All of the skills that I listed above will make you better at any job; they develop a person’s ability to work in an organization with other people.
However, part of the deal with a liberal arts degree is postponing or foregoing more precise specialization. I am a solid technical person who enjoys working with computers, but I will never do research or design GPUs. Many students with degrees in a hard science do not go on to work in those fields at all. But when tuition might require a mortgage, it is harder to argue that college is a fantastic opportunity for your mind to mature while you develop a rich inner world and contemplate lofty notions of truth, ethics, and love while you start to figure out what you really want to be. Most graduate school isn’t free either.
When I started college I wanted to make movies, and even after I graduated my plan was to pursue a technical film career. I tried it for a little while and then changed my mind. I realized that the kind of artistic labor that makes me happiest will never be the way I support myself. It took time and patience to figure out how I could do the things that give me meaning while sustaining myself doing satisfying work. A lot of people don’t ever have that.
I sometimes wish that I had explored a broader range of possible careers earlier on. There are classes that I took that I think were not worthwhile, and others that I wish I had taken instead. I have a lot to learn on my own now. This is not easy, but it is a challenge that my undergraduate work equipped me to take on. It will only be a few very specialized individuals who work for the next fifty years in a single field.
But college costs a lot of money. An unreasonable amount.
Aside from my coursework, I devoted the bulk of my time and energy as a student to photography and filmmaking. Arts education also gets a lot of flack for how pointless it is, so I want to mention the very practical things I have learned from cultivating an art practice and working on film sets. Liberal arts is not art school, so my university did not offer many technically oriented art or film classes. There was a lot of learning as we went along. The hands on experiences I had of making art, both on my own and in teams with other people, were an invaluable part of my education. I learned:
- How to give and receive critical feedback.
- How to execute a vision and adapt when complications arise.
- How to do things I am not innately good at.
- How to iterate and learn from my mistakes.
- How to work with mentors.
Again, these skills are not the exclusive domain of school and they do not fit cleanly on a typical resume, but I think it takes a failure of imagination to disregard them. Indeed, it may be that the most important aspect of a student’s mind that can be bolstered by studying the humanities is their imagination, their sense of what may be possible and what part they want to play in the world.
There is a utopian quality to small campuses and to the whole concept of a secluded environment for enlightened learning and creative exploration. Like I said, I’m blessed. But I am starting to realize that maybe utopia doesn’t scale. Studying literature in depth was once an elite pursuit and perhaps the postwar spread of humanities degrees as a part of upward mobility was part of an exceptional period and not a new norm. Maybe this kind of education isn’t for everyone.
And it still costs too damn much.
This saddens me, because I believe that the full value of the humanities is rendered upon society as a whole, through the introduction of thoughtful, articulate citizens into our complex and violent world. But maybe that is as utopian a notion as thinking that if more people read Beloved that world would be less fucked up.