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Why liberal arts? (Part II)

March 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm

This post has an older sibling, which you can read in my blog from last week. These are a few more thoughts on why the liberal arts are important/cool/worthwhile. If you think of more, please comment!

The liberal arts are reason

The conjunction between thinking about a lot of ethics academically and thinking about ethics personally has been really interesting. Mainly, academic ethics have given me a voice, a refined way of thinking about the way I think. Sometimes I’ve changed my mind about beliefs I’ve had; sometimes I haven’t.

Last year, a friend of mine started to use someone else as a stand-in as part of one of our inside jokes. The friend wasn’t exactly making fun of the person, but I still felt like something was wrong. After the situation, I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me. And then, in one of the dorkier moments of my life, the words of German philosopher/litigious walker, Immanuel Kant came to me: Don’t treat human beings as mere ends. My friend and I had seen this other person just as part of our joke—we weren’t respecting their dignity by making them part of something they didn’t understand. This doesn’t mean that every insight you have in college will be connected to really interesting Enlightenment texts. But it does mean that you might get some more tools to help you think about the way you want to live your life.

The liberal arts are skills

Whatever you study at a school like Carleton, you leave not just with a new set of content, but also a new set of things you can do. You may learn to dissect complex systems, explain abstract concepts, reason through an argument, relate to diverse perspectives, write clearly, create something beautiful.

The best/only joke I really get about my major is whether I plan on opening a philosophy store after I graduate. (I haven’t known anyone who says this well enough to ask if other people open “biology” or even “business” stores, but I’m waiting…). It is absolutely true, especially at a liberal arts college, that we study things that probably aren’t explicitly going to be our careers. But I think most alumni would say that what you learn to do by studying art history or theoretical math can absolutely be applied to “other,” more practical contexts.

The liberal arts are political, but not in the way you might think

My high school English teacher liked to quote Toni Morrison, who said in her Nobel acceptance speech that all art is inherently political. Insofar as I think art is both rightly informed by perspective and “art” insofar as it contains meaning, I think I agree with her. And insofar as I can’t just shed my perspective and I see most of my college experience as a search for meaning, I guess I would have to say something similar.

But at Carleton, I’ve actually learned much more to detach normativity from my thinking; I’m much better now at truly understanding an opinion or statement before judging it. I think much more about my opinions now than I did before I came to college, and in that sense, I suppose I have been more “politicized.” However, I still absolutely had opinions before I came here, I had just considered them from a much more singular perspective.

The liberal arts are character

I guess the summation of all of this (if there is some way to wrap this up neatly) is to say that I do think studying the things we study at Carleton has the potential to make you a better person. I know that’s a huge claim, and honestly, I don’t always believe it myself. But college has started to give me an understanding of context, generosity, listening, virtue, compassion, scope, and awareness that I think has really grown since I came here freshman year. I don’t always buy into the liberal arts bubble or the college myth, and I’m sure you can come up with arguments for discovering these temperaments in other ways. But I'm kind of done being cynical; college can be a pretty sweet deal.

This will be my last post for a while--it's the end of our term, and I'm headed home for a few days, then going to Paris (!!!) with the Carleton French program for the spring. I've been fluctuating between being very excited and very nervous, but in the words of one of my professors, I keep remembering that "there are, like, bakeries on every corner."

This term has been kind of weird, but not without quality moments: a Taylor Swift radio show, new friends, blender explosions, a snow sphinx/bear, great teachers, and the absence of lunch time on Wednesdays have definitely been defining features. In the words of my beloved roommate: Wherever the next few weeks and months take you, may you find many Parisian men.  


  • March 30 2012 at 7:52 pm
    Hannah Joy

    Love you and miss you! I'm going to send you a lengthy epistle quite soon. And I greatly appreciate the shoutout.

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