This is a picture of part of the second floor of our library. But if the lights and the shelves were in fact a train track, I've started to wonder about where they're going. Here are some thoughts.
This post, because it is written by me, is necessarily informed by my experience. I have a lot of philosophy examples because philosophy is a lot of what I do—I think most of these reasons are pretty universal, but I imagine everyone sees things a little differently. But, for me, for now, this is how I’ve started to think about what college might be all about.
The liberal arts are passion
The liberal arts give you the chance to seriously get at the things that matter to you most. College is the chance to really talk about how stories or cells or proofs or cultures work. You like video games? Sounds like you might like computer science or study art. You’re a rom-com fan? Why not try Cinema and Media Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, or English?
We talked about The Bourne Identity in my metaphysics class for ten minutes this morning, we read a graphic novel for my French class last week. Of course, going to college isn’t all about glorifying leisure activities, but is probably the case that there’s probably something at the base of what you really like that has an entire department (if not at least several classes) at Carleton.
The liberal arts are generosity
One of the best things I’m starting to learn here, across classes and departments, has been to take ideas seriously. A good essay doesn’t attack the weakest reading of an author or put bad ideas in the mouth of someone else; it takes the strongest ideas head-on, assumes intelligent responses, and really grapples with an issue.
We can talk about authors and thinkers being wrong; we do all the time. But this also happens in the context of someone else defending the thinker, of saying, “Yes, but I think so-and-so thought of that objection; look what he says on page 39.” In philosophy, the point is sometimes to find holes in other arguments, and I think this is important and valid. But that can only come after the best reading of the text as possible; you need to go against the best possible players to realize your own skill and to have a victory that actually counts.
The liberal arts are inheritance
I’ve really enjoyed taking French, because I forget how many things humans have thought about and worked on. I like zeroing in on a couple of thinkers, but the number of movements in Western intellectual thought alone, and movements within those movements, is outstanding.
My friend Sara has this app that makes her music library into a little universe; artists are their own sort of nebulous stars, she navigates to find certain songs and albums are all in the same solar system. I’ve started to think about thinking this way too. Ideas are the universe we operate within; it’s nice to know something about what’s out there.
The other part of this has to do with specialization; at Carleton, juniors and seniors have majors. But I find it much easier, now that I know what more intense work looks like in philosophy, to imagine one day studying literature or music or chemistry in the same way. It seems sort of like you need to pick a road to travel for a while, but once you’ve trekked for a while, you can go onto to other paths because you’ve broken in your hiking shoes.
The liberal arts are less alone
It is true; some days I am entombed in esoteric texts with big words and people talking about either really abstract things or things that happened a really long time ago.
But the benefits of this are multi-fold. One is that your conversations are no longer confined by space or time. If you can really read, you enter a dialogue with the author. Nothing made me a happier than finding a “You are an idiot” comment in the margin of a used textbook; the previous owner just did not like Thomas Aquinas. Similarly, liberal arts is vindication: someone else probably worried about the same problem you are, someone else has taken up a similar question or project. Through my classes at Carleton, I’ve gotten a lot better at finding and understanding the ideas of others.
I also don’t think the knowledge you gain from studying things in these settings is confining. It can be frustrating to need to simplify what you’ve been working on in a ten-week course into a ten-minute conversation, but the take-away from what you’ve been thinking about is really cool. And with others who’ve studied the same thing, you find a mutual language with precise terms to discuss meaning; I have a friend who introduced himself by saying, “I’m a moral realist, hard determinist, and dualist.” (If you’re in the Carleton philosophy department and reading this, it’s fun to think about who this is; in fact, I’m seeing a nice sort of Guess Who we could make for our lounge).
The other side of this is that what happens in the classroom, or what you read for class, isn’t just relevant or important in a solely academic context. Some of my favorite “philosophical” conversations have happened in the dorms at two in the morning. On the other hand, I’ve had “Aha!” moments when professors mention theories that relate to something I vaguely considered while washing dishes.
The more you study, the more stricken you are by your not-aloneness. After reading or doing something for class, you oddly find you can ascribe words, or at least ascribe someone else’s words, to things you've experienced and thought you experience alone.