August 15 2014
We often treat college as if it were nothing more than the route to a good job (the acquiring of which is not to be sneezed at in this economy!).
In a column headlined “Starving the Soul on Campus When Computer Science Replaces the Classics,” however, Suzanne Fields reflects on what happens when young people, especially those at elite schools, become so fixated on “return for investment” that higher education becomes soulless.
The English major is “almost extinct,” Fields writes, while Introduction to Computer Science is the most popular course at Harvard. As an English major--which makes me something of a dodo bird--I have nothing against computer science. It is a worthy endeavor. But, when higher education becomes subsumed entirely in these “practical” studies, we lose something.
Those who brave a major in literature today bear the burden of working through narrow political ideas and arcane critical theories based on gender, race and class. This is especially true at the elite universities. But that's not the only reason the study of literature has fallen on hard times.
The liberal arts were once the classes that sustained the soul in harmony with the utilitarian subjects. They must be required study lest they be passed over. The new technology may alter the way students learn, think and behave; college recruiters emphasize creature comforts, luxurious dorms, gyms, swimming pools and athletic fields. Good things, to be sure, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
At the risk of succumbing to the argument of the “other side”—that education should be entirely utilitarian--I'd like to submit that the liberal arts education is not nearly as useless as we are often led to believe nowadays.
A major in English prepares you for all sorts of jobs. I’ve been an editor and reporter and feel certain that there are any number of “real” jobs out there for which the skills acquired by the English major would not come amiss. (Needless to say, I speak of English classes in which Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold are studied rather than gender theory.)
Indeed, Michael Malone, author and college English professor, made this case for the humanities a few years back in the Wall Street Journal (“How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities”). Molone told of inviting a Silicon Valley big shot to address his English class. Malone asked his guest lecturer not to squelch the spirits of the English majors too much by telling them repeatedly that there are no jobs for English majors.
"Are you kidding?" the man from Silicon Valley exclaimed. It was precisely English majors, he said, that he was seeking to hire. Even in the highly-technical world of Silicon Valley, the humble English major has useful skills!
But we should not think in purely utilitarian terms. Fields writes:
Top applicants become trapped in a "bubble of privilege," taught to regard affluence, status and credentials as the crucial life values, more concerned with conforming to standards of "excellence" at the expense of the exhilaration that comes with the personal discovery of new ideas in the great writers of the classics.
Come to think of it, developing the whole person is useful, if not exactly utilitarian.