Hey undecided, Arts and Letters is for you
Alex Caton | Thursday, February 6, 2014
I’m not a philosophy or PLS major, but I considered both. They’re fantastic majors with eminently qualified and extremely interesting faculty. If you’re still “fundecided” and you’re really into ideas, books and destroying your friends in arguments, you should give them a serious look. To do that, you might go to their websites. And if you go to their websites, you’ll find links to passionate and, I think, somewhat out-of-place defenses of the major as an employable, and therefore worthy, field. The philosophy website provides a link to an article from The Atlantic on a philosophy Ph.D. who started a consulting firm that now has more than 500 employees. The PLS website features a collection of brief essays from PLS alumni working in everything from underwater archeology to venture capital, the message being, “Yes, you really can get a job.”
I object, in the first place, to the pervasive notion that Arts & Letters must carry the burden of proof that the degrees it confers are employable. This idea is wrong on at least two fronts. The first is that the value of a degree is not primarily rooted in the salary it brings you immediately after graduation, but in the educational experience it still represents half-a-century down the road. The second and more practical is that the ability to hear a dense or flowery set of words, dissect it into its constituent premises and conclusions and affirm it or blow it out of the water with better logic, will never not be employable.
The first of those two arguments is one I subscribe to wholeheartedly, romantic as it sounds. When I finish this column I am going to shut my laptop and read about the effect of reelection incentives on the behavior of U.S. Congressmen, and then about Richard Nixon’s veto on the War Powers Act, and then, if time allows, 30 or so pages of “Trainspotting,” a book of short stories told in the voice of 1990’s Scottish heroin addicts. I’m pretty jazzed about it.
In a perfect world, everyone gets this charged up about what they study, whether the subject is fiscal policy or fluid dynamics. But I don’t believe this is always the case here. I think there are “CHEGs” who would rather study Political Science, Pre-Meds who’d rather read British Literature and some Finance majors itching to switch to theology (plus, these things rarely seem to go the opposite way). For people so situated, the single greatest time commitment of these four years — school — must feel more like work than an adventure.
In saying this I don’t make a value judgment on different majors, nor do I discount why these situations arise in the first place. $57,000 is a heck of a sum. As is $47,000, $37,000, $27,000 and $17,000. So long as tuition hikes outpace inflation, these numbers push us to justify our degrees in dollars. So long as Mendoza holds its place as the No. 1 undergraduate business school and STEM majors get sucked into the booming economy of big data and digital everything, liberal arts kids like me will feel anxiety about how we’ll fare. That anxiety isn’t helped by the occasional career fair recruiter poorly suppressing a puzzled look when you answer the question, “What’s your major?”
But skeptical recruiters aside, I believe in an institution such as Notre Dame, career anxiety simply should not enter into the equation when you choose your course of study. Everything I’ve observed thus far points to the following formula for landing in prestigious places (and paying off your debt) after Notre Dame: crush your classes, become an interesting and confident person and learn how to lead others. That’s it. Impressive people are impressive (and impressive people get hired) because they transcend reductionist labels of A, B or C major and X, Y or Z college. Put another way, if you want to study philosophy, but you’re concerned that it will hurt your plans to run the world of investing, don’t worry — it won’t. Ask Carl Icahn and George Soros.
Alex Caton is a junior living in St. Edward’s Hall. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.