A while ago a satirical piece made the rounds among friends of mine who, like me, graduated with degrees in the liberal arts. The piece, entitled “Why Liberal Arts is Super Dumb”, purports to be written by an engineer who considers liberal arts a waste of time. Here is an excerpt:
Once upon a time, there were dumb people who did not want to be engineers. There people are Liberal Arts majors. Why do they want to be Liberal Arts? In my opinion it is because they do not understand why engineers are so great, and now I will tell you why. Because I am an engineer and I know that I am right and here is why that is.
The joke, of course, is that engineering majors make fun of liberal arts majors for not pursuing “useful” occupations while exhibiting horrendous grammar and lack of critical thinking — the sorts of things that liberal arts could actually help improve. Thus the liberal arts win a subtle victory.
I honestly found the piece humorous because, as a liberal arts graduate (I have a BA in Liberal Arts and a MA in Eastern Classics), I am well-acquainted with feeling like my degrees are worthless in “modern society.” There is this stereotype that “modern society” only values specialization and compartmentalization and technique. So people “like me,” people who study Western Civilization and the Great Books and philosophy are chasing after outdated, useless information. We should be pursuing practical occupations like computer programming, not wasting our time with debates about Plato’s Cave or the meaning of dao in Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing, right? (Of course, “modern society” is just a generalized construct in liberal arts students’ minds; a little bit of research and statistical analysis — you know, things those troglodyte engineers might find interesting — would reveal the generalized construct is just that: a false generalization that doesn’t entirely match reality.)
But while I found the piece humorous, it also inspired a second reaction: defensiveness for the engineers, for the pursuers of the “practical” arts. See, as a liberal arts graduate, I am more than familiar with the ways that liberal arts students and graduates talk smack about non-liberal arts people. In fact, the satirical piece itself trots out one of our favorite stereotypes: that engineers, people who do practical stuff like “build bridges and houses and schools and medicines and everything else is the whole wide world,” are intellectual neanderthals. They aren’t “living the examined life,” and thus they aren’t “truly human.” An “authentic,” “existential” human being would be asking the “big questions” like Does God exist? and What is the meaning of life?, not mundane questions like How do I learn coding so I can feed my family? or What is the best way to build a safe, energy-efficient building so that these liberal arts students have a college to study in?
So while the satirical piece is funny, it also makes me bristle a bit because of the countless times I have heard — and honestly, often personally participated in — conversations about the superiority of us liberal arts students. I have seen how friends of mine who chose to pursue degrees specifically to get careers were tsk tsk’d by other friends of mine who thought they were somehow less intellectual, less interested in figuring out life, less committed to Truth. It’s an awfully demeaning and rude assumption, and I know it because I’ve made the assumption, too — and I now regret it. When I got out of that mindset, I realized that humans will be humans no matter what college they go to or what degree they obtain. We all ask the same questions, we all struggle, and we all are just doing our best to make the best out of the hand life dealt us.
I’ve also come to appreciate this “modern society” that often does promote specialization and compartmentalization. Because, honestly, while I absolutely appreciate and love what I learned from the liberal arts, I sometimes feel like all I did was study everything just a little bit. So I only ended up knowing a few things about everything. Whereas some of my friends who focused on one thing might not know much about everything, but they do have mastery over that one thing. So while I still think there is great value in generalists, I also see great value in specialists. I think we need both, and I personally have benefited greatly in my own life’s pursuits from the help of friends who specialize in areas like statistics or sociology or medicine.
Liberal arts are not dumb. We need to continue to value them. I don’t think that “even an engineer can do what liberal arts does.” But I don’t think that liberal arts people are in any way superior to other people. To think that is, frankly, an extraordinarily classist, borderline racist assumption, if you really think about. (Just take a look at the income levels and race diversity at your average Great Books school.)
Liberal arts were built on the backs of manual laborers and engineers. We would do well to remember that history.