Shaffer: Educating for the good life

If you are a senior, you have only days to switch to a major in the humanities. If you’re not a senior, you have more time, but you should do so immediately anyway.

There is much superficial factionalism between the humanities and sciences. The scientist ridicules the humanist, claiming that chemical synthesis is a phallogocentric social construct. And the humanist sees the scientist in running sneakers and loose-fitting jeans and wonders if he’s actually that clueless, or if he’s just on an even higher level of irony that we humanists cannot grasp. My point isn’t to increase the divide, or to denigrate the accomplishments of natural and social scientists. But everybody ought try a second major or significant coursework in the humanities.

“Art,” Oscar Wilde said, “is perfectly useless.” A true paradox which applies equally well to the humanities. Like art, the humanities are perfect and useless precisely because they are the highest ends of human life — so intrinsically satisfying and enriching that they need no external justification. They are the ends for which we live as opposed to the means by which we do.

And they’re so much fun. Scientists — natural and social — discuss data, facts, quantities, regressions, statistical significance. But we humanists talk about love, power, tragedy, violence, beauty and justice, God, guilt, sex, pathos, madness, inebriation and the power of religious guilt against inebriated sexual madness, and every other possible combination. The humanities are, in a word, sexy. They attempt to highlight the boldest, most interesting things claimed about human life in millenia of the smartest conversations and best art on record. The great humanist Aldous Huxley defined the intellectual as somebody who had discovered something better than sex. Data sets rarely are.

So study humanities. It’s not just for now, either. As unsatisfying as an education without liberal arts can be, what follows is even worse. I have a grim prophecy.

You can devote yourself to practical classes. You run all the data on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But someday these data will change, and you’ll have forgotten them. More, you’ll stop caring about the economic costs of the conflict, and you’ll want to know which side is right — what it means to be a part of a people, and what that has to do with land and religion and ancestry and political sovereignty. The unchanging values, not the shifting facts. You’ll forget all the regressions you ran on religious demographics in politics, and you’ll start wondering if He exists.

You might still maintain that some facts matter, and I’ll agree. But you’ll never get enough power to influence policy without selling out, and eventually you’ll realize that the only significant choices you really control are whom you’ll marry and how you’ll raise your kids, and that these are the most important decisions you’ll ever make. And you’ll feel like a dolt for taking classes on statistics when you could have been reading and discussing “Madame Bovary” and “Emile.” You’ll forget about sound policy and wish you knew about the good life.

As you wait for a phone call from a client with a fake tan and an MBA smile, you’ll thumb through The New Yorker, and you might find you have no appreciation for the poetry, you don’t know the meter, you don’t get the references, and that the joy others have found in the English language is lost on you and you are a hollow man. You’ll walk to the Met with the other fashionable young things and stare blankly at the Vlaminck, finding it even more boring than your options pricing. And this is the way your youth ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

You’ll find consolation for your Philistinism and aesthetic deprivation in “The Daily Show” and BusinessWeek, and conversations revolving around the invariably fascinating first-person singular. But then you’ll wake up, like in the beginning of a Woody Allen movie, and realize that you’re dying. And you’re not ready, because the best definition that has ever been given of philosophy was in Plato’s “Phaedo,” that it is preparation for death — and you majored in political science.

This is all a bit over the top, I confess, but my point is serious — a life without the liberal arts can be neither satisfying nor wholly human.

It is sometimes said that education should make us fit for the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Education should make us precisely unfit for the world. It should make us unemployable, disagreeable, politically eccentric, out of touch with our generation, absent-minded and unready for bourgeois respectability — maybe even a bit morbid, too. It should make us too concerned with truth to be influential, too concerned with goodness to be successful, too clever to laugh at the jokes we’re supposed to, too raised in consciousness to rehearse the roles corporate and political America have prepared for us, the ridiculous postures of “professionalism.” It should make us totally useless — but also, more human, more whole, more enriched.

And that’s precisely why you should major in the humanities.

Eventually we will probably need to reconcile with the world. But we deserve and need some time in the wilderness first.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at


  • haha

    hahaha, brilliant!

  • y ’10

    I really enjoyed this. well written, witty, and, in my view, true.

  • future banker

    well said sir.

  • ???

    “It should make us unemployable, disagreeable, politically eccentric, out of touch with our generation, absent-minded and unready for bourgeois respectability — maybe even a bit morbid, too.”

    –you want us all to be more like you, mr. shaffer?

  • really?

    How can you define a “liberal arts education” as “majoring in the humanities?” Doesn’t “liberal arts” imply a well-rounded education–which includes courses in the sciences? Or are you taking the term literally–the arts with a political ideology?

    Even as a science major, I don’t think the humanities are as “useless” as you say they are, and I thoroughly enjoyed the 2 humanities classes I was required to take. But I think your description of the sciences is inaccurate–it’s not the data itself that’s important, it’s what it means. Even if I can’t appreciate art as much as art majors, I can look at a cloud and understand its significance–what it’s made of, what processes caused it, how the air is moving inside the cloud right now, and maybe get some clues about what the weather will be like tomorrow.

  • @4


  • Alf Tupper

    An additional benefit of the humanities major is that it will equip you to truly enjoy all those books that you will have time to read while unemployed!

  • good

    another damn good article

  • ’10

    Possibly the worst writer the YDN has ever employed!

  • Disagree

    I strongly disagree with the author. Regardless of whether one is a natural science, social science or humanities major at Yale, all disciplines teach students to think critically and question the standards by which we understand our world. An economics major could question the current models for understanding the macro economy or a humanities major could questioning Plato’s finest work; regardless, both students are learning not to accept the status quo and to always think about how to challenge the current norms. Indeed, this is a significant reason why students benefit from studying with professors that are “groundbreaking” (aka Professors at Yale). This constant questioning and searching for truth can lead to satisfaction in itself.

  • Goldie ’08

    Liberal arts are just hobbies. Study science, math, statistics. Appreciate the arts, but to advocate the study of other’s opinions (art, literature) is foolish. Study truth, fact and law – science.

    Also, scientists are on a whole different level of irony. They don’t care about fashion and skinny jeans because they know trends like that are fleeting. In the long run, its all fleeting because we are going to die and scientists, unlike loser hum students, accept this and word to try to change it. I have placed my faith in modern science and expect to live to age 120 if not forever.

  • Ugh.

    Yes, trying to understand the underlying structure of the universe on a scientifically rigorous basis is sooooo meaningless and boring. Stupid facts! Well, at least my research in experimental particle physics is bringing in the sweet moolah!

    Why I personally majored in science (despite taking and loving lots of humanities classes): I can keep doing research, and explore Great Literature, history in my spare time. Hard to do it the other way around.

  • y ’11

    wow. this was good.

    science majors, you don’t get it.

  • Amusing trend

    The positive comments (#1,2,3,8,13) all appear to be authored by the same individual: similar lack of capitalization of all letters except the one-letter word “I” and all very, very brief.

    It’s a shame to see that Shaffer’s writing has gone from boring and unfunny to downright inane.

  • dual major

    if this was just an ode to the humanities i like it. but i hope you don’t seriously think science is always boring. i recommend the dual major.

  • y ’10

    why do humanitiets people bash science? I don’t talk about literary crit.

  • aldous

    I don’t see why scientists should feel offended. I can do science and be proud of my research while still acknowledging that poetry is more satisfying and indispensable. And the humanities are at more risk than science.

  • @ Goldie

    Goldie, as a former science major, I offer you my condolences because science has failed you. Like you, I once saught to maximize the indicators in my life. I wanted to maximize my wealth; I wanted maximize my lifespan. But before you spend all your life trying to tack on those extra 30 years, ask yourself why you want that extra time. Is a longer life worth it if your goal is merely to hold on as long as possible?

    While I am not so adamant a supporter of Humanities as the inimitable Mr. Shaffer, I must say that the answers to what makes life truly worthwhile are yours for the taking. In the library, in works of art, lie the minds of countless thousands who have done it all before. You can read and you can see what works and what doesn’t. Somethings are intangible and happiness of one of them.

  • Hmm.

    Mr. Shaffer’s recent encomium of Sarah Palin suddenly makes a lot more sense, what with the apparent misunderstanding of science and distrust of those pesky things called facts!

  • goldman

    I like it. I’m glad I did liberal arts, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a real job and being productive, either.