Stoicism: Day 9 – What the Stoics think about your liberal arts degree

It is Polar Vortex 2 week here in DC. The government closed for a day, and I decided to work from home. Hooray for flexible workplaces!

I really did not want to jump into my ice bath today. It was snowing outside, I was nice and cozy and warm in my apartment, and I just wanted to relax. But, I knew that once I broke the chain it would be difficult to recover.

When I was in the ice bath, I started thinking about how useless my liberal arts degree was. I majored in International Affairs, and by the time I hit senior year, I’m pretty sure I skipped or slept through 50% of my classes for an awesome 3.3 GPA. I did the cost-benefit analysis of attending classes to get a higher GPA and I settled for a 3.3.

My path after college was non-linear and random. I went from  Navy Officer to English Teacher in Egypt to Entrepreneur to Consultant. Random. And I can’t say that my International Affairs degree really came in handy during any of it. Ok, that’s not true. It was interesting to witness the Arab Spring in Egypt and have a bit of context about what was going on, but that was pretty much it.

Currently, pundits are debating the merits of a university education, liberal arts, and more practical fields of study such as STEM fields. College is incredibly expensive, the economy can’t absorb all the liberal arts majors in jobs appropriate for their education, and most students don’t feel they have the capacity to study a difficult field like Computer Science.

You might think this is a new debate, sparked by our most recent recession, but lo and behold, even Seneca weighed in on the value of liberal arts and vocational studies.

Here’s what Seneca had to say:

You have been wishing to know my views with regard to liberal studies. My answer is this: I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making. Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. One should linger upon them only so long as the mind can occupy itself with nothing greater; they are our apprenticeship, not our real work. Hence you see why “liberal studies” are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born gentleman.

Here, he says he has no respect for “profit-bringing occupations,” which means he probably wouldn’t care for the current emphasis on encouraging students to study STEM fields. He also acknowledges that “liberal studies” don’t bring profit, which is why they are appropriate for free-born gentleman. Basically, only rich kids who don’t need to work are suited to liberal studies.

That makes sense.Though with the level of debt students are graduating with today, they are hardly ‘free-born gentleman’ as Seneca would say.

But the liberal arts don’t get off that easy.

But there is only one really liberal study, —that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile. You surely do not believe that there is good in any of the subjects whose teachers are, as you see, men of the most ignoble and base stamp? We ought not to be learning such things; we should have done with learning them.

Hm, I never took “Wisdom 101,” though I was introduced to a bit of Plato and other Western philosophical traditions. I was never taught to apply them though, just examine them abstractly and write 5-page papers (double-spaced of course).

Here’s a particularly poetic passage about what we should really be learning from our liberal studies:

Do you raise the question, “Through what regions did Ulysses stray?” instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times? We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether he was sea-tost between Italy and Sicily, or outside our known world (indeed, so long a wandering could not possibly have taken place within its narrow bounds); we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses. For us there is never lacking the beauty to tempt our eyes, or the enemy to assail us; on this treacherous allurements of the ear, and yonder is shipwreck and all the varied category of misfortunes.

Show me rather, by the example of Ulysses, how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail toward these ends, honourable as they are.

Why try to discover whether Penelope was a pattern of purity, or whether she had the laugh on her contemporaries? Or whether she suspected that the man in her presence was Ulysses, before she knew it was he? Teach me rather what purity is, and how great a good we have in it, and whether it is situated in the body or in the soul.

We should be studying how to live virtuous lives, not iambic pentameter or international political theory or Greek architecture.

I apologize to my Medieval French Literature professor if she is reading this.