Lament of the Liberal Arts Majors
An essay on why the world still needs us
The cost of higher education today is astronomical — literally, because a four-year degree costs about as much as a voyage to Mars. Liberal arts majors can barely afford a bus ticket to Poughkeepsie. Understandably, contemporary students pursue studies in high-demand fields, like any containing the word “technology.” The earning potential of a bachelor of arts degree, however, is on par with that of baristas or Uber drivers.
Amid these daunting economic realities, I fear that the once proud liberal arts majors will go extinct, like wooly mammoths or moderate Republicans. The best they can hope for is unemployment with dignity. Alas, as one of them, I am a member of a dying breed.
It’s a miracle I graduated from college. Specifically, it’s a miracle that I persuaded an institution of higher education to accept the random hodgepodge of courses I took as degree-worthy. My transcripts read like answers to Trivial Pursuit questions.
My advisor told me that the ultimate goal of higher education is to empower a student to become an expert in their chosen field. But what if I choose not to choose? She said, “Everybody should be an expert in something.”
Really? The only thing two experts ever agree on is that the other is wrong. Experts know that the surest way to prove their expertise is to make another purported expert look like a blathering ignoramus. Thus, they turn character assassination into a sport; they call it “peer review.”
Expertise can disguise a lot of social anxiety. Or it can be a vehicle for narcissism. Either way, experts have definite issues.
Implicit in my advisor’s remark was that, based on her review of my academic track record, I was on a course to achieve expertise in absolutely nothing. Fair enough. But my operative principle was that I ought never dedicate more than one semester to any subject. Beyond that, it got boring.
In my own defense, I told her that my true goal was to become a Renaissance Man. I had a genuine passion for knowledge — it’s just that I didn’t care much for learning.
Yes, I wanted to be a Renaissance Man. A polymath. The Uomo Universale. Like Leonardo da Vinci, although with somewhat less towering genius. Maybe more like the guy who designed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Bonnanno Pisano. That’s the kind of thing a Renaissance Man would know. But why does the tower lean? Who cares? That’s a question for the experts.
Ultimately, thanks in no part to my advisor’s sage counsel, I graduated with a BA in liberal studies — that is, a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. I am that person who “knows just enough to be dangerous.”
Incidentally, the “liberal” in liberal arts means wide-ranging, not “liberal” as in a la-de-da elitist, left-wing, America-hating conspiracist who wants to take your guns from you. Still, some would argue one leads to the other. If you took a course in college requiring you to read “Waiting for Godot,” there’s a good chance you drive a Smart Car with a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker.
To be brutally honest, I embraced academic liberalism as the easiest way to get through college without taking any hard courses. I opted toward subjects where there are no right or wrong answers. As a result of pondering imponderable questions, I became quite adept at spewing bullshit.
There’s a little bit of bullshit artist in every liberal arts major. That’s why so many of us, frustrated by a job market that does not value our distinctive talents, eventually become lawyers.
Liberal arts majors develop bullshitting as an art form. It’s necessary because, with our academic background, people expect us to know something about everything. That’s a difficult standard to live up to. But I found a way.
If you want to quickly learn just enough to hold your own in a conversation on some topic about which you know nothing, there is a whole body of literature dedicated to promoting superficial knowledge.
Of course, I’m referring to books in the edifying series, “Bluffer’s Guide to___,” “Complete Idiots Guide to___” and “___ for Dummies.” Collectively, there are hundreds of such books. They contain basic knowledge, with none of the confusing details. They are like cheat sheets for bullshit artists.
Although these books are useful, I propose a new series, designed especially for people like myself. I’ll call it “A Bullshitter’s Memorandum on the Very Least that You Should Know About ____.”
I already have my first three titles for the series:
“…The Least You Should Know About Crypto Currency.” Does it really exist? Will it go poof into oblivion if there’s a power failure? No matter what Matt Damon says, it still seems like somebody is trying to sell me a digital Brooklyn Bridge.
“…The Least You Should Know About Critical Race Theory.” Nobody knows what it really is, but everybody knows whether they are for or against it. This book teaches you to validate either opinion.
“…The Least You Should Know About Political Correctness.” I like to think that I’m just about as “woke” as is possible for a Boomer. Still, the nuances of what I can and can’t say baffle me. I’m not even sure what gender I am anymore. I’ve always checked the “male” box, but these days there are so many choices I have to wonder if there’s some more specific designation for somebody, like me, who gets off at looking at naked pictures of himself. Is this a thing?
Despite the advantages of becoming a liberal arts major, I fear for their future. Significant incentives must be provided to offset an asymmetrical cost/ benefit analysis. When they say they’re “in the red,” it means that they have to sell their blood plasma three times a week.
Therefore, I propose that student loans should be immediately and totally forgiven for all liberal arts majors. That’s not such a big deal. Most are in default anyway.
Furthermore, the college should pay tuition to them, rather than vice versa. It’s only fair. Liberal arts majors make a college look good, because without them, nobody would ever use the library.
Think of it this way: it is in the long-term interests of society to placate liberal arts majors. In that case, poverty-stricken bullshitters will no longer be forced to become lawyers. Certainly, we can all agree that society will be better with fewer lawyers.