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Growing Up and the Liberal Arts: A Tuesday Roundup

Your parents’ income may play a large role in the major you select: in “Rich Kids Study English,” Joe Pinsker considers the elite bias toward studying the arts, history, and other less practical majors:

Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts. …With average earnings for different types of degrees as well-publicized as they are—the difference in lifetime earnings among majors can be more than $3 million, one widely covered study found—it’s not hard to imagine a student deciding his or her academic path based on its expected payout. And it’s especially not hard to imagine poorer kids making this calculation out of necessity, while richer kids forgo that means-to-an-end thinking.

Pinsker’s article draws us back to the discussion of the liberal arts and their relevance (or lack thereof) that has proliferated over the past few years. As B.D. McClay pointed out at The Hedgehog Review, many defenders of the liberal arts get caught up in trying to prove their vocational “usefulness.” Yet such arguments often, necessarily, fall through: “Pure mathematics has no place in a scheme of education that is about utility,” McClay notes. “Neither do the observational sciences, which are—despite being of great importance in the history of science—politely shown the door in pop accounts of the discipline. The fine arts, which have always depended on patronage for survival, will never be able to justify themselves on the grounds of utility.”

The liberal arts were taught in classical antiquity to freemen, and focused on non-vocational subjects seen as having a larger intellectual, philosophical, or political value. Yet such an education was still seen as having a practical value, considering the civic role that ancient Greeks and Romans played in the operations of their government.

What Pinsker’s research indicates is that only the rich think they can afford to learn something that isn’t useful to modern life’s larger goal (namely, procuring a secure and profitable career). While this makes sense from a practical point of view, it also indicates a changing attitude toward larger perceptions of civic duty and involvement, and what such duties entail. In today’s society, we are still called upon to vote, to engage in important local and national political decisions. Is it still necessary that we have a well-rounded and thorough understanding of non-vocational subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, and history in order to make wise decisions in these matters?

Writer and philosopher Susan Neiman thinks so—in a recent Q&A with Salon, she talks about our increasingly infantile age, and points to its political-intellectual roots:

The social structures within which we live are constructed so as to keep us childish. The state has an interest in preventing us from thinking independently, and it cultivates and exploits our worst tendencies in order to do so, for grownup citizens are more trouble than they’re worth. The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to create societies with fewer conflicts, but they are not societies of adults.

… It’s remarkable that though we are constantly told to exercise our bodies regularly, we hear very little about the importance of exercising our minds after we’ve finished our formal education. Reading Rousseau and Kant is one way to do so. … As Rousseau and Kant teach us, society has an interest in our not reaching maturity. By encouraging our most infantile characteristics, and diverting us from the truly important adult questions, it distracts us from the social problems that need to be solved.

While I would refrain from making a blanket “It’s the state’s fault” statement when considering our society’s love of youth, Neiman is right that our intellectual immaturities often prevent us from participating in civic matters with the necessary discretion, thoughtfulness, and prudence. The question of why we exercise our bodies and not our minds only points to this immaturity: we prize a fit body because it is more youthful and likely to produce longevity. But in our free time, we feed our minds on Netflix and Facebook surfing. The liberal arts are focused on developing healthy patterns of thought, robust intellectual habits and virtues. They teach us how to think, how to engage with important subjects, how to read and speak with a careful intelligence. By focusing only on career and monetary compensation, not on intellectual sagacity, our education system reinforces materialistic habits—and thus bolsters an idolatry of youth and comfort that (inadvertently or no) can encourage the dominance of the nanny state.

Of course, such problems aren’t solved by someone deciding to become an English major. But more thorough study of the liberal arts, in one’s private time as well as in one’s academic studies, may help reverse the trends of immaturity that we see scattered throughout our culture. Such studies may not lead us to greater financial benefit—but they will cultivate long-lasting political and cultural goods.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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