As a New York Six Think Tank Fellow, my project focused on exploring the connection between an education in the arts and/or humanities and success outside of academia. Prior to beginning my project, I had seen for myself the positive reception my own education in classics and philosophy received during job interviews and networking conversations. To my surprise and delight, the people I spoke with were not only impressed with my background, they seemed acutely aware of the line of reasoning that led me to pursue it in the first place.
This was a real “Aha!” moment for me, as I do think that those who choose to pursue tracks of study that are the complete antithesis of a pre-professional degree are often met with sighs of exasperation and pity, if not outright condemnation. You know what I mean- it’s the “What are you going to do with THAT degree?!” from the stranger you chat with on the bus, the “You’re a philosophy major? So what are you going to do after college, philosophize?”
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to do just that. However, I felt strongly that these critics were missing something. “No, you don’t understand,” I wanted to say. “I didn’t choose to study philosophy and classics because I want to graduate and live in the woods by myself and ponder life. I don’t even want to get my PhD and I don’t want to teach. I majored in these disciplines because they are a tool for learning and thinking about anything I could ever possibly want to do!” In other words, what seems to some to be a trite or at least very, very specialized field of study is actually quite practical-maybe even the most practical degree one can get.
In an article published in The Atlantic entitled, “Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major?” Edward Tenner argued just that. Tenner wrote, “What makes philosophy different? It can seem self-absorbed; philosophers themselves joke about Arthur Koestler’s definition: ‘the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose.’ But it is also a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.”
If you are reading this, you already feel strongly that the arts and humanities offer benefits to students and society alike that are often overlooked, so I will likely have a pretty easy time getting you to see my point, if you aren’t onboard already. The pressing question is, how do we explain Tenner’s point: that studying the arts and humanities might very well be (dare I say it) practical to those who might have grown up with the idea that you need to study something that will lead directly to a career in that field (e.g. engineering)? How can we convince young, impressionable students that choosing a major in the arts and humanities does not mean resigning themselves to a low salary or limited professional opportunities, but in fact could be the foundation for their astronomical success in a wide variety of fields? Even more concerning: how do we convince their parents that their tuition dollars are being wisely spent on this sort of degree?
It’s a daunting task, for sure, but unless we get the conversation started, misconceptions about the arts and humanities could very well prevent students from choosing to major in these disciplines, which is a tremendous personal loss for the students (imagine getting to be 55 and realizing that you didn’t study what you truly loved because you believed it to be impractical), but also for society as well. For without these thinkers and dreamers, philosophers, anthropologists, history buffs, artists, etc., the world as we know it would cease to exist. As budget cuts at universities around the world abound, this is a very real risk. Let’s fight to keep the arts and humanities alive by demonstrating an aspect of studying them that is not often discussed — their practical value. Welcome to my New York Six Think Tank Fellowship project.