“All I know is that I know nothing.”
Socrates, how right you were. For the sophomores starting Contemporary Civilization: When Plato wrote these words 2,000 years ago, he was talking about the virtues (or lack thereof) of justice. But I was surprised when they spontaneously sprang to mind in a conversation I had with a close relative. We were discussing the benefits of the liberal arts approach, that dead horse that never tires of being beaten. As he eloquently put it, the Core is “a bullshit education.” I was reading Leo Schwartz’s—admittedly more measured—column (“Action versus theory,” Sept. 5) last week when the question emerged again. It’s the timeless critique of our time at Columbia: that we spend our time bullshitting essays and sipping wine while pontificating on Hegel, wasting our youth (and our parents’ money) on subjects that have no application in the real world.
I respectfully disagree. What we receive here is an education in doubt. Doubt of the beliefs that we held when we arrived here; of our perceptions of the world; of class, color, and race. Nearing the twilight of my undergraduate years, I can say with some certainty that I would be of little help in an apocalypse. I would be of little help in building a generator or catapult. I won’t cure cancer or prove unbroken supersymmetry. But with the same certainty, I know that the education I received here has made me a more critical thinker. There is an indisputable value in this. The ability to have critical discussions has worth in itself. Weighing opposing opinions hones and sharpens your own arguments and beliefs. I learned that the only constant is that nothing is constant. I learned to question everything and everyone.
Discussion both inside and outside the classroom is essential to this education. We are given a comprehensive—if incomplete—crash course in the debates surrounding the biggest questions of humanity. The fact that the majority of the thinkers in the Core are dead white men should not diminish the importance of their contributions: inspiring debate and challenging our preconceptions. Ideally, this should increase our capacity to host and formulate these arguments. I realize that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to measure “criticality” in an empirical way. But can any one of you who (honestly) read the works presented in CC tell me that you left without an increased capacity for critical argumentation? If anything, CC should teach us to cut through bullshit arguments, rather than perfecting our ability to create them.
I have received an education in knowing that I know nothing. That’s what the premise of Columbia, and the liberal arts education, is all about. A necessary part of this education is being able to recognize what is missing: writers of color, or Americans, or women, in the Core. But our ability to question what is missing is a necessary result of an education in doubt.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shamed by our left-brained, liberal, “antiquated” approach. How we choose to spend our time is indicative of who we are as people, and four years is a lot of time. I find myself in the often embarrassing position of apologizing for my major: sociology. It’s not that I regret my decision to major in the (agreeably vague) discipline, but the quizzical looks and judging glances from my family and friends got the better of me. I wilted. I capitulated. When asked the inevitable “so what do you plan to do with that?” I talk about the potential of law or business school. I acknowledge that my undergraduate career was insignificant, that nothing of worth was accomplished.
No more. I have a new senior year resolution: Never apologize for my education. I’m not dismissing the value of technical education—God knows we need more doctors and engineers. But I also know that there is a value in liberal arts education. I’m more than a little scared about entering the work force at the end of this year, but I have the utmost confidence in my ability to approach challenging situations and provide nuanced solutions. Columbia gave me that.
The beauty of the Core is that it offers no concrete answers or solutions. The people who are pummeled and questioned are not the authors, but your classmates participating in the discussion itself.
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is treasurer of Students for Educational Reform. Too Be Frank runs alternate Mondays.