Along with taking STEM or other utilitarian courses designed to pave the way to lucrative jobs, as worthy as this goal is, undergraduates owe it to themselves to waste some time taking utterly useless courses.
College is the last stop for many for reading classical poetry, thrilling to the deeds of heroes, ancient and modern, and acquiring at least a nodding acquaintance with, in the poet Matthew’s Arnold’s words, “the best that has been thought and said.” That was what Arnold regarded as the reason one learns and the essence of essence of an education.
Sign up for Latin, Greek, if you are brave, history, philosophy, English lit and other useless courses while there is still time. Become an educated person before becoming an educated doctor, lawyer, farmer or what-have-you. You won’t regret it. I shall try to set at rest the minds of worried parents who are helping to foot the bills for your overly-expensive sojourns in academia–but first the rationale for the “useless” courses.
We’ve ignored the broad-based education built on classics in part because many university faculties are at war with the “oppressive” culture that produced these marvels (a topic for another day) and because we have forgotten about the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. That does sound useless, right?
And yet it is one of the principal ideas in John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, a classic for those who believe in (well) the classical education (which is really what I am advocating here). Newman didn’t believe it was the job of a university to enlarge the field of knowledge with scientific research but to help students acquire knowledge as it existed. Knowledge in and of itself was a valuable good, as was wisdom (which might result from the acquisition of knowledge).
Add in some reading pleasure, and you have an ideal that no longer holds sway in the normal university. We’re a society that laps up books on the joy of sex, the joy of cooking but rarely on the joy of pure knowledge. Our colleges today are often described in terms that make them sound like glorified vocational training. Believe me, I know that graduates need to get out and find a job as quickly as possible. And I would like to sell the liberal arts primarily on the basis of their intrinsic values. But I have long contended that a liberal arts education gives a grounding that can make one a valuable employee.
As financially ruinous, obsolete, and elite as a humanities education might seem, especially in a day when college costs so much, let us recall that the Brits ran a vast empire employing mostly classicists from Oxford (note: before anybody gets excited, this is not a plug for empires but for the classical education as a job training program). Surely, those who have wasted time on Chaucer or Catullus have gained skills that can be practically applied today.
Perhaps I cling to the notion that the liberal arts education and the humanities are not total wastes because I must. I belong, after all, to an almost extinct species: the English major. And yet, without an advanced degree in a more practical field, I’ve never starved. I’ve always been able to work as a reporter or editor, work that I like and that pays the freight for me. And, indeed, I’ve long suspected there are also real jobs out there where an English major’s (and by extension a Latin, philosophy, or history major’s) skills might be serviceable. Word from none other than Silicon Valley confirms this suspicion.
A piece in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago by author Michael S. Malone brought pleasant tidings of English majors finding gainful employment even in the tech industry. It was an adapted from a speech Malone delivered at Oxford University. In it, Malone recounted inviting Santosh Jayaram, a Valley high-tech entrepreneur and a veteran of Google, to address his writing students. Malone had recruited Jayaram to tell his students to switch majors before it was too late and they were doomed. Malone was in for a surprise.
“Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,” Jayaram told the class. The entrepreneur said that today new ventures are developed by finding investors for products that are envisioned but do not yet exist. This requires verbalizing–telling stories. There has been a shift from engineering to storytelling, which Jayaram described as a much rarer talent than those required for engineering. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors,” he told Malone.
In an article headlined “Why Every Major Tech Company Needs an English Major,” Vivek Ranadivé, chairman and CEO of Tibco and a hardware developer, concurred with Jayaram. “Why? Because as important as the technology is that powers our lives, businesses also depend on humanities-oriented communicators to articulate why the technology matters,” he wrote.
Like English literature, Latin is an overlooked “useless” subject, but it is a wonderful skill for understanding how language works (when you hear people say “give it to Bob and I,” you know they are clueless and that their skills will only decline without remedial work), encountering history and literature of an earlier age and (after the initial suffering) pleasure. But it is widely considered useless.
The English journalist Toby Young has written that, when skeptics tell him that Latin is useless, he has two words for them: Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg studied Latin at Phillips Exeter Academy and noted on his Harvard application that it is a language he could speak. He quoted from the Aeneid during a Facebook sales conference and has said that he regards Latin as one of the elements of his success. His worth, according to Forbes magazine, is $6.9 billion. Stunning, all can say is, mirabile dictu!
And please don’t slight the useless subjects, if you want to grow up and be Mark Zuckerberg.