Ceraolo: In Defense of Academia

by Julia Ceraolo | 9/8/15 7:43pm

When I caught wind of the recent conflict dividing faculty members of the College’s English department, I was inclined to liken its essence to that of the ongoing debate between critics and champions of liberal arts philosophy. My general understanding of the conflict is that various instructors in creative writing, a sub-category of the English department, feel that their interests are not getting enough attention, and that too much of departmental focus goes to traditional courses. Well, many of these instructors also lack the intensely and strictly academic background of the professors who teach more traditional courses. This debate reveals a fundamental difference in opinion about the purpose of college.

I’m an English major and a ’15. If I have any advice for the College’s freshmen this year, it is to resist the temptation to focus too heavily on the Creative Writing(s) of all the departments on campus. This is a liberal arts school, arguably one of the best in the world — it has academia at its core. Embrace it. While it’s certainly wise to consider different pragmatic plans for career stability after graduation, like a career in creative writing, or to learn skills such as writing more directly, it’s also foolhardy to forgo the resources that liberal arts academia has to offer.

No one is going to stop you from writing the Great American Novel after you graduate. Why not take a step back and realize that a concentration in the history of the subject that most interests you might give you a fuller picture of the specific material you’ll later want to write about? A liberal arts education forces you to take more voices and historical perspectives into account before narcissism can leap to the fore. Yes, you must practice what you want to do to be good at it, but all the best fiction writers — and for that matter, philosophers, journalists, entrepreneurs and other serious game-changers — first spent a lot of time simply reading, and talking about what they read to people who are more experienced. Whenever you write an essay for a professor, it’s a way of engaging with that professor. It’s a heightened version of any thoughtful conversation you may have with them. Take advantage of this.

To be clear, I have nothing against the creative writing classes on campus; on the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed those that I took. But unlike all of those internet think-pieces calling for clearer paths from college to career, I believe that often what is ostensibly a clear path in college quickly becomes a haphazard one after graduation. No amount of creative writing course election either as an undergraduate student or in a Master of Fine Arts program is going to guarantee you a seat in the literary community or your name on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. At least with a broader focus on all the writers that came before you, you can gain other skills that will put you in proximity with the literary world without depending entirely on its whims for survival. I think it’s both healthy and useful to be, at certain times in life, more interested in other people’s writing than in your own. This is how great editors and publishing houses and literary agencies are born. But it’s also how people in other professions become professional: in dealing with professors, discussing ideas that someone else had, you will be relieved to find that the class isn’t all about you, or the grade you will earn from it. It’s about being exposed to the subject in a deep way, and what’s more, learning from the professor as a human being who has different habits of thinking than you do. This translates to other academic disciplines where there is a temptation to take courses that seem to more directly translate to any particular career path as well. Resist that temptation.

Even as our culture becomes more narcissistic, our parents and politicians become more skeptical about our ability to benefit from liberal arts education. There is a pervasive sense of needing to get down to business, quit taking selfies and wasting time on Facebook and settle into a streamlined approach to future careers. The irony is that liberal arts is the enemy of narcissism: it helps people see the big picture. It opens doors — both psychological and professional — to people who would otherwise be paralyzed by their own personal projects and career preparation. In this way, liberal arts may be more essential than ever as a component of today’s education.