The new year invariably commences with blasts of fireworks and self-improvement, brilliant, but alas, tragically brief. Most still have a few weeks before they realize they will not actually go to the gym consistently – or at all. For us college students, the bubble bursts far sooner. The onset of January means holiday cheer is no longer an excuse to ignore the impending doom of summer applications. New year, new GPA to add to the resume. I resolve that this year I will get on top of things, lest I commit the sin of falling behind, or worse, wasting my precious years at Yale.
A liberal arts education was supposed to give me the freedom to explore all of the numerous and disparate subjects for which I had indicated an extraordinary passion in my application to Yale. I am now nearly halfway through my college experience, and the pressure to specialize has pared down my interests, as I’ve given up Latin, physics and to a large extent visual art. Time is a limited resource, as my Econ textbook will never fail to remind me. The oppressive scarcity of our four years in college compels us to do something productive, to maximize our lives, our potential, our capacities to earn and achieve.
Naturally, many see college as a career investment—a college degree greatly increases earning potential in the long term. This “careerism” surely also accounts for the value shift from humanities to STEM in our academic institutions. A degree in mechanical engineering or computer science seems to provide practical steps towards a career, just as scientific advancements contribute obviously and concretely to human progress. In contrast, what is the purpose of my history degree, or the painting class I took last fall?
During one such art class, I found myself listening to former Yale professor Mark Oppenheimer’s Podcast “Gatecrashers,” which unpacks the history of Jews in the Ivy League. Much of the series centers on antisemitism, but one episode focuses on Dartmouth alumni who loved their alma mater. One such alum, Philip Shribman, wrote to his younger brother while serving in World War II: “In a liberal arts school you know nothing, and are fitted for nothing when you get out. Yet you’ll have a fortune of a broad outlook, of appreciation for people and beauty that money won’t buy.”
My history degree may not lead directly to a job, but it will certainly preserve the legacy of the liberal arts education, that appreciation for the world in all its beauty. As much as STEM promotes progress, the humanities guard and guide it. Yale and institutions like it provide us with the space to explore all disciplines, to erase the artificial distinctions between them, to advance humanity’s future while appreciating its past and present.
All this is to say, we do not go to Yale to prepare for a career. On the contrary, Yale is the privilege to not know what to do and to be able to do it all anyway. For at the end of the day, the most crucial part of our college resume will not be a finance extracurricular or a snazzy science degree, but the simple title of “Yale University.”
Wasting our years at Yale is not taking one less class, applying to one less summer program, or getting one letter grade lower—it’s giving up perhaps the last time in our lives when we have the opportunity to do whatever our hearts desire.
Philip Shribman died in the Pacific Theater of World War II, where he defended the ideals of liberty and the liberal arts. “Don’t give up the idea and ideals of a liberal arts school,” he wrote. “They’re too precious, too rare, too important.”
The liberal arts education is not just a degree, it is the belief that there is beauty and value in the human experience in and of itself, regardless of what it builds, earns, or achieves. We are on our own frontlines, and we can choose to protect the legacy of human knowledge amidst an ever changing world. We can strive, but we can also learn to live, love, and appreciate the wonders the world has already offered us, as brilliant as fireworks, but infinitely more enduring.
And so this year, I encourage myself and my peers to join a new extracurricular, pick up a paintbrush, try that film class, or just make a new friend. We have been given a gift. I resolve not to take it for granted.