No Time for Liberal Arts

In a society of rapid absorption and application of knowledge, global crises and daily technological breakthroughs, it seems nearly impossible to keep up with the world and find time to invest in the study of subjects like literature which cannot feed malnourished children, create alternative energy or improve prosthetic limbs.

For this reason, individuals who aspire to pursue such areas as literature face the scathing stigmas and stereotypes of legions of analytical technology enthusiasts who have no time for the art of language in their mission to save the planet one gigabyte at a time. I personally have a preference for the definitive and clear-cut nature of mathematics and sciences, and yet literature retains its alluring promise of satisfaction and enlightenment. As Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker so eloquently phrased it, “we cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die”(Gopnik 1). And so we arrive at the first and most common justification for studying literature: written works give us another dimension to live through the experiences of others, awaken new understandings of people and events, and connect us with our predecessors of societies long gone. The second reason is a bit more quantitative. Contrary to the common underground mentality that literature enthusiasts are simply failed STEM students looking for a purpose, Princeton University reports that “exactly half of… students admitted to medical school were Humanities majors” (Princeton 1) and perform well in the same rigorous environment as their counterparts with technical backgrounds.

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The fact is that literature comprehension requires critical thought, something that develops the brain for success in fields that utilize these skills as well. Students who lack these traits would fare no better in Humanities courses than in applied mathematics courses. Oftentimes we forget that it is unnecessary to choose “a side” between the humanities and the sciences; these two subjects coexist on many occasions, shown, as previously stated, by a staggering number of medical students who have humanities backgrounds, and studies which reveal that “reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence” (Chiaet 1). Literature does more than “cultivate the human core” (Brooks 1); it provides us mental stimulation and challenges our analytical minds with every obscure symbol, an indisputably invaluable skill set in any environment. The stigma is true! Anyone can write.

What some people may disagree with, however, is the equally truthful statement that anyone can understand math. Anyone can write poorly and anyone can understand math poorly. Mastery of a subject is what is truly exceptional and in the case of mathematics and sciences, mastery is defined by a number, a test score, or percent error. Mastery of writing is a different matter completely. How is good writing defined? An essay score is subjective, critic reviews are obviously biased and personal taste dictates reaction to a written piece.

Perfection is nonexistent. Literature exposes us to a range of our fellow humans’ attempts to perfect writing so that we may draw from this vast supply of styles, diction and syntax to form our own unique voice. So yes, written work connects us to our past, gives us new experiences and is even scientifically proven to enhance performance—but the reason I find literature so intriguing is that perfect writing is indefinable and to me, this is a challenge. I could spend a lifetime learning quantum mechanics and electrochemistry and finally achieve a perfect score on a college exam but I will spend a lifetime striving for a better, stronger way to communicate, a more effective means of speaking to unknown audiences.