OPINION: Optimization is the new threat to liberal arts

It’s been a little over three weeks since we’ve returned to school, and though the heyday of settling in and figuring out schedules has left little time for existential musings, I find myself reflecting on a conversation I had with a close high school friend over break.

We were driving back from a bookstore and discussing how impactful a good book can be when she sighed and said something like “It’s so nice to read, but I don’t really understand the point of studying literature.” Shocked, I asked her to clarify. “I guess it’s like, what’s really the use of an English major?”

To be clear, this friend is no illiterate opponent of higher education — she attends an elite university and enjoys reading fiction in her spare time. I spent the rest of the car ride trying to defend the ethos of the liberal arts education, but it was the word “use” that particularly stung and stayed with me.

Were it not for this specific turn of phrase, I might have written off the instance as an example of STEM single-mindedness that so pervades our society at the moment, leaving humanities out to dry. Yet as I thought more about why her comment bothered me, I realized there is a unique and insidious facet to her way of thinking that needs to be explained.

This is a relatively new notion, but one already so instilled into our capitalistic society that it at first seems self-evident: To be successful (see: productive), you must optimize every experience.

In this culture of, as Drake says, “grind ‘til you come up,” summer plans become resume builders, social interaction is calculated to maximize networking potential and college is only as valuable as the future employability it sets up.

The narrative of the American dream has its roots in Puritan notions of the sanctity of work. But recently, the pressures associated with the millennial trend of glorifying workaholism are starting to seep into higher education.

Far from being a one-off, my friend’s question seems to be the thought of many college students today; it’s the idea that our worth will be determined by the heft of our paychecks and the intensity of our jobs.

If college, like all other avenues of Generation Z life, must be exploited to the fullest, it makes sense that students would turn to majors they view as more practical, more useful and optimal. More and more frequently, optimization looks like STEM.

Beside being factually inaccurate (humanities majors are no less likely to be employed than life or social sciences and the difference in employment rates between STEM and humanities is not actually that stark), the low opinion of humanities reflects a disturbing trend in Generation Z culture, one in which we see ourselves only as future cogs turning the wheels of capitalism.

Work for the sake of work inevitably leads to massive burnout and ignores the values of developing critical inquiry, intellectual progress and thought for the sake of thought.

You could ask what the “use” is of any major, and the answer is that it will be whatever that student chooses to do with their post-college life.

James Blaisdell, a former president of Pomona College, said, “they only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”

In the end, everyone must decide for themselves what “riches” they have to offer, and that’s a question that doesn’t depend on one’s major.


Talia Ivry PO ’21 is a psychology and religious studies double major from Madison, Wisconsin. She is grateful to have escaped the polar vortex.

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