“Hi, I’m a freshman thinking about taking your English class this semester, but I heard English is basically just a dialect of Spanish and not very useful at all, so I was hoping you could defend its inherent relevance to me or I might just take French? Best … ”
Substitute “Catalan” for “English,” and you have the approximation of one of many emails received by at least one professor in the Spanish department.
Beyond sheer cultural insensitivity, such a question—challenge, really—highlights the growing concern over practicality that plagues higher education in general, and Columbia in particular. Canon contributors recently debated the merits of including preprofessional training in the Columbia curriculum, generally arguing in favor of maintaining the liberal arts emphasis (“Professional preparation,” Nov. 14). I agree. I agree that Columbia should work to actively uphold its integrity as a liberal arts institution in the face of pressure, both internal and external, to the contrary.
But framing the issue of professional training as one of degree is an oversimplification and to deal with it we must look beyond the “more” or “less” arguments. Students face seemingly contradictory directives coming from different branches of the institution. The Core, one of Columbia’s defining features and one that sets us apart from peer institutions, aims to ground students with general abilities for critical thought. From the Core website: “The habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.” In short, we read the Iliad, laugh at the sex jokes in Lysistrata, and forget most of what we read but retain the fundamental skills of analysis that we have gained in the process. No news there.
While “meaningful lives” do not necessarily equate to employment, it seems quite reasonable to assume that the critical skills formed in this otherwise idealistic pursuit of the intellectual are intended to play some role in making us smarter humans—or at least ones who would be able to adapt to the curveballs of job training for which little classroom experience can be of direct use. This is a basic idea behind an education in the liberal arts. It may seem like the opposite of preprofessionalism, but it is, in the strictest sense, a “preprofessional” endeavor, a sort of intellectual training that prepares us in a comprehensive way for the rigors of adapting to adult life and work. We tend to compartmentalize the Core as something fanciful and flighty, overlooking the inherent practicality of a cultivated, well-rounded intellectual foundation or regarding the liberal arts as one side of a dialectical antithesis between the practical and impractical, between career training and pure intellectual pursuit.
What’s lacking is an explicit recognition of the value of a Core education in the formation of candidates for competitive jobs—both in the messages projected to Columbia students and in the qualities we emphasize externally. Rather, in order to compensate for the seeming impracticality of knowing the “lioness on the cheese grater” position, Columbia presents a plethora of traditionally preprofessional resources as practical, concrete, and unrelated to the cerebral idealism of the Core. The Center for Career Education does an excellent job of preparing students for lucrative careers in finance and consulting, of instructing the idealists who choose history or English over financial economics that even they can acquire the practical skills to succeed in banking and related fields.
In other words, CCE makes it clear to us that we liberal arts students can, with the right experience outside the classroom, still get a job doing a practical thing like banking. The issue, then, is not one of resources but of translation. There is a definite disjunction between the purported goal of Columbia as a champion of the liberal arts and the means by which we translate the intellectual generality of the Core Curriculum and the humanities into professional skills. Getting a job after Columbia should not merely be a matter of compensatory activity, of internships and things that “excuse” the impracticality of the liberal arts. Our academic and career advisers should work to better teach us just how to employ those “habits of mind” in order to, well, get employed, while emphasizing to potential employers the Core skills that make Columbia candidates adaptable to learning any number of new tasks.
I am one Columbia student who could have benefited from a preprofessional push: I’ll have two “useless” majors, scattered semesters of four different foreign languages, and more credits than I know what to do with. A real job is but a rosy-fingered dawn. There’s no question that I could have made things a lot easier for myself had I chosen a more straightforward path. But I can safely say that four years ago, I would not have imagined that I’d be spending a Sunday watching the Catalan elections at the Casa Hispánica, straining to understand commentators in a language I didn’t even know existed until I arrived at college. I’m not sure what the practical value of that is—in fact, I think searching for some immediately applicable role of a working knowledge of Catalan would mean taking a rather reductive position as to the telos of education. I do know, however, that the privilege of attending a university like Columbia is the chance to explore for four years before committing to a professional field, a luxury we share with a select few in the U.S. and almost no one outside of it.
If we compartmentalize the liberal arts as something at odds with the skills that make us practical job candidates, if we focus too much on the immediate practical benefits of our education—to the point that we’re questioning teachers about the utilitarian value of classes that Columbia has endorsed—we are neglecting that privilege and losing our identity as a liberal arts institution.
Caitlin Brown is a Columbia College junior majoring in psychology and comparative literature and society. Pick my Brain runs alternate Tuesdays.
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