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The perils of practical thinking

By Aaron Udel

Section: Opinions

February 1, 2008

On numerous occasions people have told me that a major in English and American literature has little or no practical value. “There is no future in the study of literature,” they say. The response is similar when I explain that I am considering adding a major or minor in philosophy. Why do people respond this way?

In the first place, many people have preconceptions about different fields of study, particularly the humanities. For example, some people believe that students of literature pull hidden or non-existent meanings out of old and boring books. While many of the books are old, very few are actually boring if you take the time to understand them. The problem is that people aren’t willing to put in the proper time and effort. Moreover, interpretations of literary works are not an exercise in ‘bullshit’ as many people mistakenly believe. Good interpretations build upon supporting evidence within the text.

Many of my friends and fellow students believe that certain majors invariably lead to academic careers. Although I haven’t done the research, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Both majors I am considering (English and philosophy) cultivate skills that are valued by employers. Surely the ability to think and write clearly is worth something these days? One would think it is now worth more than ever since fewer people seem capable of it.

More disturbing by far than general misconceptions about humanities fields is the value that ‘practical thinking’ has gained in our society. Today the importance of practical things seems to be increasing while the list of what counts as practical seems to be shrinking. If everyone in history only did something because it was ‘practical’ our world would be radically different today. I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, which depicts a consumer driven society that buys happiness at the expense of individual freedom. Huxley envisions a world where people become slaves to standards of stability and efficiency, accepting a fixed role in the economic and social systems of which they are a part. In Huxley’s dystopia the works of Shakespeare are locked away and hidden because they would have a negative effect on society. The reasoning is that if people were interested in reading Shakespeare they would be less focused on their jobs. Is this the direction we are heading today? Is the goal of a university simply to produce human capital? How much are we ultimately willing to sacrifice for efficiency? Too much, it seems.

Higher education should not be valued simply as the means by which one can get a well paying job. Knowledge is valuable in and of itself, without regard to much we can profit from it. In short, I believe that good will come out of studying subject matter I am passionate about, regardless of whether or not other people think it is practical. I urge others to follow their passions and consider where a dogmatic interest in practical thinking might lead.

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