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In defense of Arts and Letters

| Tuesday, October 5, 2021

We’ve all heard the comments — and probably even made them: “Arts and crafts” along with other taunts meant to deride Notre Dame’s oldest and largest college. We students of the College of Arts and Letters ourselves often indulge in self-deprecating jokes about our seemingly foolish majors that supposedly offer us no job security or serious, respectable career opportunities. You might overhear one A&L student, in good-humored liberal arts solidarity, remark, “My PLS major has given me no marketable skills, but at least I’ve read ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘War and Peace’ and everything Aristotle!” to which another responds, “Hey, try American Studies. How do I even explain to an employer what that is?” We joke among ourselves about our career prospects, but we do notice less humorous scorn and skepticism with which some older generations or even peers in different fields regard our studies. Think about how a typical family gathering plays out. Your brother tells your aunt whom you haven’t seen in two years that he’s studying neuroscience or chemical engineering, to which she expresses her approval and exclaims “Oh wow!” with a glimmer in her eye, while you tell her you’re studying English and Peace Studies and she just says, “Oh,” unimpressed. 

Perhaps I had these encounters in mind when I came into Notre Dame as a biochemistry major without even knowing what biochemistry was. In fact, it wasn’t until the second semester of my junior year that I truly found out what it was by taking it as a pre-health requirement. It certainly sounded impressive, sure to earn me the admiration of my elders and show that I was a serious student. However, I quickly escaped from the grips of the College of Science once I found the wheels of my brain turning like never before in my political philosophy class freshman year. For the first time, I became aware of an entire academic and intellectual world that studied people, societies, art and culture — and the College of Arts and Letters housed it. 

While even I — despite my appreciation for A&L — am guilty of doubting the value of the liberal arts at times, all jokes aside, it’s time we give the College of Arts and Letters the respect it deserves. Keep in mind that we undergraduates all took many of the same general courses in high school and performed well across the board to get here. Once admitted, however, we were able to choose and change our majors accordingly. Some people are certainly more capable and inclined in particular areas in which others might struggle, but someone’s choosing to study sociology or history is just that, their choosing — because they enjoy it. 

While I have agonized over physics problems and chemistry labs for my pre-health studies, some of the most challenging and formative thinking I’ve done during college has been in philosophy papers for the Justice Seminar, mock trials for constitutional law, and discussions and speeches for small seminars. The College of Arts and Letters has taught so many crucial skills that following lab procedures or memorizing steps of reaction mechanisms could not. I have learned how to formulate and express original thoughts on subjects that have been studied and debated throughout all time: I’ve learned to read, write, speak, listen, respond and adapt, and in my final year of undergraduate studies, I feel ready to go out into the world confidently because of it. 

The mainstream view is that people who study liberal arts are academically inferior or less serious than their STEM counterparts — that they picked up the political science major because organic chemistry was too hard, or that they couldn’t handle mechanical engineering so they traded it in for theology. But my experience has been the opposite. I’ve known countless peers who have turned to the liberal arts to fill a void with which their previous studies left them by adding an English major to a biology one, or a theology supplementary major to computer science. I myself added political science to my pre-health studies because I have so deeply enjoyed thinking about government, power dynamics and the systems of society. 

And the value of Arts and Letters doesn’t just lie in complementing or rounding out the more serious and respectable STEM fields. Even standing alone, the liberal arts are sufficient. The whole world can’t be scientists and engineers. In fact, we’ve seen good reasons why we shouldn’t all be. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, “hard” science got us a vaccine, but it didn’t necessarily get us vaccinated. Social science, psychology and communication did (and continue to work to get through to the vaccine-hesitant crowd). This is evidence enough that we need a variety of contributions to society to reach the optimal outcome. A flourishing society should have people in all corners pursuing what piques their interests: using their talents and inclinations to do what they can do best. 

I am not making an attack on STEM fields, but simply a defense of the liberal arts. What we do in the College of Arts and Letters is valid and valuable. Of course, we need scientists. But we also need philosophers, sociologists and historians. Let people do what they enjoy in peace, and don’t assign value to their personhood based on the value of their career industry. When I think of the College of Arts and Letters, I think of students and faculty who have an extraordinary curiosity about the world around them and a determination to engage with and impact it. To find one’s niche in studying anthropology, medieval studies or film should be celebrated, not ridiculed. What a boring world we’d live in without the fruits of these fields. Next time you crack a joke about “arts and crafts,” ask yourself if you would be capable of such art and if you would want to live in a world without it. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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