Liberal Arts and the Advantages of Being Useless

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Liberal Arts, and the Advantages of Being Useless| 1

Nicholaos Jones Department of Philosophy University of Alabama in Huntsville nick[DOT]jones[AT]uah[DOT]edu 1 Introductory Remarks The trees of the mountain bring their own destruction. The oil in the lamp burns itself. The cinnamon tree is edible, so it is cut down. The varnish tree is useful so it is cut apart. All know the advantage of being useful, but no one knows the advantage of being useless. - 莊子 [Zhuangzi] (364-290 BCE), Zhuangzi, "Transactions in the World of Men"

When we are young, it's easy to figure out what to do next. At least, that was my experience. In high school, I knew what I was going to do after each school day: sports practice (I was a jock), then eat, then watch some TV, then sleep. And I knew what I was going to do after high school graduation: go to college. And I knew what I was going to do after each school day again: go to work (I was poor), then eat, then watch some TV, then sleep. I even knew what I was going to do after college graduation: go to graduate school. Of course, I ended my undergraduate schooling with a philosophy degree. So it wasn't much of a surprise to anyone that I went to graduate school. After all, what else was I going to do with a philosophy degree? Law school, maybe. But anyone who knew me also knew I didn't have a penchant for lawyering. And everyone knew I also had no desire to flip burgers or deliver pizzas. It seems my hand was pretty much forced: graduate school or bust.

Liberal Arts, and the Advantages of Being Useless| 2

Lucky for me I got admitted to a graduate program. Otherwise, who knows – I might still be unemployed, or stuck flipping burgers like all the other philosophy majors who don't go to graduate school. I mean, if there's any college major that's totally useless, it's got to be Philosophy! Of course, I don't mean to be biased toward Philosophy. There are lots of useless college majors: History, English, Music, Sociology … pretty much the entire repertoire of Liberal Arts. I bet there are some of you who disagree, who think Liberal Arts degrees aren't useless. You're wrong. I also bet that, among those of you who agree, who think Liberal Arts degrees are useless, you're wrong about why they are useless. One of my goals, accordingly, is to explain why Liberal Arts degrees really are useless and why people are right to say so. But I don't want to be a Negative Ned. I want to give you something positive. So I have two other goals. I'm going to tell you what the Liberal Arts are – what's so liberal about them, and why they're arts. This is going to support my explanation of why Liberal Arts degrees are useless; and it's also going to help with a third goal. Because I'm going to convince you that the uselessness of Liberal Arts degrees is advantageous. I'm going to argue that people who major or minor in a liberal arts discipline are better off than people who don't. And I'm going to argue that these people are better off precisely because Liberal Arts degrees are useless. 2 "What Are You Going To Do With That Degree?" Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good. [This good] seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, and in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end. - Ἀριστοτέλης [Aristotle] (384-332 BCE), Nicomachean Ethics Book I

Probably one of the most useless people in the history of the world is an ancient Greek guy by the name of Aristotle. Even though he initiated many of our modern scientific disciplines – biology, zoology, psychology, and so on – he sucked at being a scientist. Pretty much every theory he ever proposed has turned out to be false. I blame...
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