My education was largely self-referential — that is, a recursive reflection on and defense of the value of a liberal-arts education itself. In my staff column, and my papers, I tried to justify the useless artes liberales in the 21st century. I was warned that the real world would rob me of this youthful romanticism. A year and a half in, how do I feel now?
Pretty well. I have good bourgeois employment. The world still has plenty of uses for generalist writers. I learn and write about Chinese consumer lending, Russian corruption, and Japanese corporate governance. I try to computer program at night. I had four years to turn inward: to, with Socrates’ and Nietzsche’s help, peel open my own skull. Now I’ve started exploring the world beyond my own capitulum. I’ve decided it’s pretty interesting and has a few problems I might like to help solve with more functional knowledge. Am I glad now that I didn’t go for a humanities PhD? Yes. Would I then give up or change my heady college years? Surely not. A useless education through college’s extended childhood, followed by something useful afterwards, seems the right mix.
My fondest memories are of things I’m supposed to be embarrassed by: how totally my bright college years contrasted professional life. I wrote columns exploring whether Lady Gaga could fill the void left by the Death of God and popular conflations of sex and masturbation (spoiler: sex involves another person), only half-ironically. I smoked a tobacco pipe in a tweed jacket in the Owl Shop and Davenport courtyard, only half-ironically. I was, wholly deservedly, tossed out of roughly half the parties in the YPU (the wiser half never let me in). If — God forbid — I am ever known or influential, some young muckraker will effortlessly wind spools of evidence of how unprofessional and disreputable I have been since conception. I was no coy Elena Kagan, and thank God. If holding one’s tongue and one’s mind is the price of admission to the Supreme Court, it can’t be worth it.
These fond memories only highlight the worst of life beyond Yale’s gates. Several times this year I’ve had a familiar meta-conversation. I bump into some former dorm-room dialectician on a corner, and we furtively glance around and regret aloud how hard it is to have the conversations we had in college. We admit we still churn those same preoccupying questions in secret: whether the self is continuous (are we still the ones in our elementary-school pictures?); whether our souls, if we have any, are gendered; whether the metaphysical assumptions of the America founding are, strictly speaking, true; whether our taboos should be taboo; and (most commonly) whether we deserve the privileges we inherited as Yale graduates. Each of these conversations could be professionally dangerous, whether for pressing taboos, doubting the “authentic” selves we assembled for job interviews, or being “pretentious” in a democracy that believes the curious inversion that watching sitcoms is natural, while pondering the human soul is an affectation.
What does an illiberally educated world look like? At its worst: Ask a girl at a bar if she likes poetry and she assumes you’re putting on airs, or awkwardly untutored in contemporary mating rituals. Ask a co-worker if he’s a believer, and he thinks you’re accusing him of something. Ask aloud a political question, and the sinews in every forearm within earshot tense. Get too playful with your word choice and you are mistrusted as an epicene. Be un-PC, and be unemployed. There are exceptions (all my friends included). But that is the rule. Most adults have an almost religious devotion to being endlessly boring — they consider it a moral obligation.
People become scared of ideas (at least those that they cannot depersonalize and hold at a distance with obscuring jargon). This happens the moment their livelihoods become attached to a professional position attached to the social approval of what goes in their heads and out their mouths. This is why the utter irresponsibility of the college student is so good — and why the most tedious people at Yale are those already consumed by their professional ascents. The modern working world is more austere and repressed than the medieval monastery. Every word is vetted and evaluated for its functional and organizational utility. Real human cares — religion, politics, death, love — are seen as divisive (in fact, they form our connections), and therefore unspeakable. When they are raised, words are chosen not for their relation to the truth or authentic sentiments, but for their contribution to one’s social standing. (Am I exaggerating? Obviously.)
I don’t think it needs to be this way. Our lives would be more interesting if we could talk about religion and flaunt political correctness and entertain doubleplusungood thoughts around the dinner table — if we were all less mentally intolerant, rigid, prickly and defensive. That is, if we could extend the mental playfulness and freedom of the college campus (minus the limitations that are, uncontroversially, imposed by the university’s frantic left-liberalism) to the productive world. We would be forced to live more honestly, too.
There are mundane justifications for the humanities: “communication skills,” the ability to contextualize all other knowledge. But most important is sending liberated intellects beyond the gates (or out of the wilderness) of Yale to make our after-lives less boring and closed.
Matthew Shaffer is a 2010 graduate of Davenport College. Since leaving Yale, he has worked as a journalist for National Review, a ghostwriter and a business case-writer.