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The Carletonian

A response to Griffin Johnson: On the practicality of humanistic inquiry and of a liberal arts education

<go there was a viewpoint article that discussed the impracticality of both a liberal education and, more narrowly, of a major in the humanities, social sciences, and certain “quixotic” intellectual pursuits. For anyone who may have been saddened, angered, or dismayed by this, let me offer a few factual counterpoints in support of the merits of a liberal arts degree.

Before I talk about personal experiences, let me just point out that reflection upon this issue – namely, the meaning, application, and profound significance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century – constantly shapes and reshapes questions about curriculum, career-advising, civic engagement, and allocations of funding at Carleton. Carleton is by no means “structurally opposed” to the idea of “career training.” On the contrary, the goal of our liberal arts education is to provide a solid foundation for a “practical” career (and here, as a historian, I naturally take issue with poorly defined terms: practical for whom? For what? When? Where?). Carleton’s collegiate education is founded upon preparing its graduates to become leaders and citizens “capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges.” This is not an issue of discrepancy between theory and practice: if you scan the alumni directory, you will find copious numbers of alumni, from all majors and concentrations, who found themselves treading a different path than the “unemployed barista who still writes novels and looks at ants under microscopes.” 

The key idea here is “inventive solution.” The interdisciplinary nature of a liberal education can provide Carleton students with a unique “mental vision,” an ability to see old materials and ideas in unprecedented ways. This ability to think “for yourself” – to analyze and assess and create and recreate (“aude saepere!” “Dare to be wise!” says Kant) is at the essence of a liberal education. These creations and analyses and assessments must, of course, be supported by justifiable claims and pertinent evidence, and Carleton’s liberal arts education, especially in literature, humanities, and social science courses, undeniably prepares its students to thoroughly and aptly defend their inventive ideas. This combination of a keen, interdisciplinary vision and an ability to construct and support solid arguments is applicable to any “practical” vocation, whether it be law, medicine, finance, consulting, teaching, marketing, etc.

So, the question then arises: how is my major in medieval history going to prepare me for the real world? My parents used to ask me this weekly. Their concerns were amplified, to a large extent, because, about four years ago, I stood at the crossroads of two possible career pathways: vocational training in biomedical engineering at a large public university, or a liberal education at a small, private institution. “What happened?” they used to say to me. “What options do you have besides a career in teaching?”

They stopped asking me these questions when, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I successfully completed an internship as an analyst at a financial services firm. I explained to them that my experience doing research in the history department – compiling references, assessing claims of primary sources, translating Latin – prepared me with the work ethic, the communicative skills, and the problem-solving “toolbox” I needed in order to take on a research project that entailed unfamiliar content. Though I am not an economics major, I was able to build liquidity factors and to assess the correlation between CTA performance and market liquidity, simply because (in conjunction with a crash course in statistics) I knew how to research, build an argument, and support my claims with appropriate evidence. Furthermore, having observed the interdisciplinary factors that go into the making of a firm’s financial models, I have no doubt that the study of history is essential to the prediction of market (i.e. social!) behavior.

So, do I have any regrets about not going to engineering school? Not at all. This was simply a different route, not a better one. Does my passion for studying social behavior in late antique and medieval monastic institutions preclude me from any “real world” vocation? Absolutely not. On the contrary, there are many ways in which a job in management consulting, for example, would be perfect for a historian of monastic institutional life. One only needs to be able to see the ways in which these things are relevant, and a liberal arts education can allow you to have this capacity of vision. Liberal arts institutions are funny in that regard – the object of the game, in a sense, is to learn the rules. Nota Bene: Regardless of your major, the way you participate in this game – the passion, discipline, and active engagement that you bring to the table – directly affects the outcome of the whole affair. And this, of course, is entirely up to you.

-Lina Feuerstein ’12

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