In our current economic crisis, college students are more concerned than ever about their degrees’ value in a competitive job market.
It takes a sort of stubbornness these days to decide to be an English, history or romance languages major, as students in these fields are forced ad nauseam to answer the elusive question “What will you do with that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” we sheepishly reply, “probably law school,” even though the thought of billing hours and perfecting our rote memorization skills for three years is about as attractive as embalming for a living.
But nonetheless, this answer gives some kind of solid credence to our supposedly unpractical choice, so that the business major or pre-med student will leave us in peace, free to contemplate the subtleties of the book “Light in August” and to ignore the looming LSAT.
However, this bleak aura of disrespect for those of us committing ourselves to art and literature is not a necessary evil, or even a particularly recent one.
In the past few decades, the percentage of students receiving degrees in English has declined steadily, translating into less variety in courses, less support for graduate studies and far fewer jobs for professors.
But why are students abandoning the humanities in favor of more “practical” subjects? Are we as a generation simply less interested in literature and the arts, or are we just too afraid to stray from the supposedly job-secure course?
It seems to me that the latter explanation is more probable, since we live in a world where security of any kind seems more and more elusive.
But while the explanation might make sense, the reality is that the humanities do matter, and allowing their decline is simply not good for human advancement.
After all, what is more practical than endeavoring to discover the human condition? Anything but esoteric and irrelevant to “real life,” literature delves into the deepest parts of the human psyche, forcing us to come to terms with tragedy and joy in ways that are necessarily ignored in classes about business administration.
Of course, I do not want to decry other majors or criticize their implications for our society.
Bankers and doctors and lawyers are necessary for society to function efficiently, and these professions have immense importance in solving the problems of our day.
But we have to ask ourselves, what about after the problems are solved?
What are we fighting for when we cry against genocide and dirty water in poor countries?
In demanding practical solutions for social injustice, we pride ourselves on valuing and protecting human potential. Likewise, the function of literature and art is to explore and define that potential, to take it to its limits to see what we are really made of as a species.
Frankly, I don’t want to live in a world that only values the practical.
Why should we limit ourselves to our lives’ obligations, logistics and statistics when we have such a wealth of creative indulgence all around us?
Olivia Blanchard is a junior English major from Atlanta, Ga. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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