I hold a Bachelors Degree in German language/literature and English literature from a well-respected liberal arts college. During the 4 years I spent there, I read countless books in German and English – countless classics which I dissected, wrote about and discussed.
But for all that, I see myself as an imposter.
As the debate about the pros and cons of higher education rages on, one of the issues centers around the humanities and the liberal arts. You see, the people who argue that college is vital for a successful career will often switch gears (when they feel they are losing that argument) and say that college is not about finding a financially lucrative career, but about broadening one’s mind through the pursuit of the humanities and liberal arts. It is said by people like Leon Wieseltier and Johann Neem (who come at the argument from very different points of view) that the humanities are vital, not because of the financial prospects they provide, but because they teach us how to be productive citizens, how to debate and work for the good of society; how to basically be a good person and recognize our place in the world.
And I don’t believe that.
Before you all have a heart attack, let me just say that good judgment and responsible citizenry and all that CAN be obtained through collegiate study of the humanities and the liberal arts, but it certainly is not a given and it is not the only path to such “enlightenment”. It is possible to develop empathy, to become discerning & introspective, moral and philosophical even without knowledge of the humanities; even without ever having read the great philosophers or the great works of literature.
For myself, 4 years immersed in two literature majors did not make me a more introspective thinker. It made me tired. A lot. It made me not want to crack open a book for almost two years after I graduated. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy a lot of the books I read. Most of them have faded from my memory completely, except for two: Die Neuen Leiden des Jungen W. (The New Sorrows of Young W.) by Ulrich Plenzdorf, and Fruhlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) by Wedekind. I don’t know why both of the books I remember well were German – I read tons and tons of English Literature, but don’t ask me to list the titles. Of course there were also courses on world religions, philosophy and psychology. I don’t remember what I read in those courses either.
Then what, you might well ask, was I doing there? Good question. I wasn’t a big partier and always got good grades, but the books I read and their meanings/messages are not what I remember, in particular. I remember that I took a political science class and when asked what our first political memory was, we all to a person said Nixon’s resignation or Watergate. I remember my psych 101 professor telling us about anal fixations and uttering the words, “Because let’s face it, a good shit feels good.” I liked the Quaker meetinghouse where people would just go and sit in silence as their form of worship, even though my appearances there were sporadic at best.
Truthfully I believe that my own moral code, my own “expanded worldview” began to develop only during my overseas study in Germany and Austria (one couldn’t help but be affected when staying in a city divided by a wall or traveling through a country in which young people were not allowed to leave, even for a vacation). But it didn’t fully realize until a couple of years after college, when I spent four months traveling on my own across this country and meeting a wider range of people with different ideas and backgrounds than I could ever have imagined. It solidified on my subsequent return to NYC when I began interviewing for jobs and got my first apartment on my own.
In short, I think it’s great to read classic novels, or any novels for that matter, but it’s only REALLY great if you read them of your own accord. Only then will they have meaning to you and affect you in a way you’ll remember. (And you can easily find people with whom to discuss the books you read, should that be your desire.) Rather than study political science in a classroom, why not travel to a place with a completely different political life and agenda than the one in which you were raised? My time in the GDR, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1986 did more for my political awareness than any book, discussion or paper ever could. Join a philosophical society if you feel you are lacking in that area. Attend the worship services of varying religions to see who the people are and what it’s all about.
Get out in the world. That’s where the humanities live.
I guess I’ll rephrase my earlier statement. I’m only an imposter when it comes to my liberal arts degree. My ongoing real world education in the humanities and liberal arts is rich and ever-evolving. Had I to do it over again I would trade the 4 year degree for 4 years in the world without a second thought.