Esemplare ’18: Consider life, not the humanities

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sitting in an English class last week, I was struck by a comment my teaching assistant made to a fellow student who had asked how to find the Department of Comparative Literature building. My TA half-interestedly described the building as a “mausoleum” hidden next to the imposing Science Library. The description was somewhat poetic — and deeply ironic — and it has stayed with me since. I start with this image because to me, and likely to others, it describes cogently and tragically the current state of the study of literature that I so genuinely enjoy. 

As an English and economics concentrator at Brown, I like to think that I have blended practicality and passion. There is a need for both in life, and one’s college years are a challenging time to strike a balance. But as I see more and more of my friends — talented and intelligent students — turn toward paths of study that they consider safe or practical, I can’t help but be dismayed.

I understand their reasoning, and I don’t mean to paint them purely as sell-outs; many of them will continue to experiment academically outside of their concentrations. Based on the cost of tuition and the aim of a liberal arts education, however, I strongly disagree with the notion that college should be considered primarily as a launching pad for one’s career. Brown is not a vocational school, and focusing entirely on one field for the purpose of career advancement strikes me as little short of absurd.

College is hard work, but it shouldn’t have to be work in the colloquial sense ­— why start your career four years early?

More importantly, one must consider what it is that we attend college for. Surely in the early days of education, the betterment and fulfillment of the individual took precedence. Since then, however, the focus has shifted more and more toward learning how to do some future job. While I agree that learning for learning’s sake is not exactly practical with a cost of attendance — including tuition and fees and room and board — adding up to $62,046 for the 2015-16 academic year, I strongly resist the idea that learning how to do a job is more important than learning how to live your life.

It is no secret that the humanities are falling out of favor as viable fields of study, and for good reason. In a world of skyrocketing tuition payments, students make practical judgements about their educations that often preclude humanities subjects from consideration; simply put, subjects like English, philosophy and history do not provide, financially speaking, a good return on investment. Why, students ask, should I major in English if I plan on pursuing a career in business? 

For those unsure of what to study, Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations or economics represent relatively safe choices. Ten or 20 years down the road, a BEO concentrator can be relatively certain of being able to point to a bank statement and say, “Here, right here — this is what I am worth.”

There is a value in this certainty that is not trivial. The path to a life in business is clear and well-defined; you know where to intern, which skills to learn and which people to meet. During my first semester at Brown, I asked an English professor which internship options were available to English majors. He told me most of his students interned in business.               

Fighting for the place of literature and the humanities has become a bit of a cliche in today’s world, but I find the most common arguments cited in these battles unconvincing. Many are entranced by the idea that majors such as English or comparative literature can be defended as practical financial choices, arguing that the skills learned in these fields, especially critical thinking, are widely applicable in professional life.

This argument is unsatisfying. The humanities will never be able to compete with business or economics on strictly financial grounds; the dollar for dollar return on investment in these fields is often much higher. No, the value of such majors will never be adequately represented by a paycheck or a set of skills.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am also unconvinced by the “art for art’s sake” argument, which contends that the pursuit of beauty and culture exists for its own sake and thus doesn’t require any practical justification. I see this argument as a sort of elitist evasion and, once again, unsatisfying.  

It is almost blasphemous to discuss practicality in non-fiscal terms, but, of course, future earnings are not the only return on investment that a college education provides. As an English major, I don’t believe my degree’s value can be surmised by improvements in critical thinking skills or writing.

Reading a novel does not prepare you for employment; it prepares you for life. Great novels are about great questions, and fundamentally all notable literature explores the human experience. There is a profound relatability in literature, because though novels masquerade as the stories of others, they are, underneath it all, the story of ourselves. And so we already know the wisdom and the human experience, without knowing we do, because it is our wisdom and our experience. Great books awaken the dormant truths in your brain.             

In the end, the issue of what to study at college comes down to priorities. For some, financial security is, quite reasonably, the primary end that college serves; for others, serving the community or pursuing a dream job understandably overrides the type of abstract human understanding that I discuss here. I’m not demonizing business or glorifying the starving artist; I’m only asking that you consider college as something perhaps too valuable to squander doing what you will do for the rest of your life.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at

  • Man with Axe

    You make a very cogent case for studying literature, I agree with every word of your essay.

    I would ask, however, if you are fortunate enough to be able to truly study literature, and not some sort of “theory” instead, which is all too common in English departments these days. If you are able to truly look for the universal in the books you read, and not have to process it all through a prism of racism, classism, sexism, heteronormativity, and the like, you may actually get (some of) your money’s worth from your education in literature.

  • ShadrachSmith

    “the current state of the study of literature”

    The study of literature has been hijacked by Social Justice Warriors. It has become a political tool of the hard left. As a result,…well, you know the result 🙂