Dec 19, 2012

Literature and the Liberal Arts

Q: I'm having a real hard time deciding what course to do in University; it seems as if I can never make up my mind over what I want to do as an occupation. My interests are very similar to yours, so I was wondering if you could give me some advice?

You know what I'll say. Liberal arts!

I was very bent on going to the UK to do a Literature / Creative Writing degree, but after a while I realised that writing is not as much about learning how to write as it is about ideas. And ideas come from everywhere, every single discipline, every issue in the world. In the UK I'd have spent three years on Literature, and pretty much only that. I mean, there'd be the chance to take other modules, but not as much as I'd have liked. I don't think it would inspire me as much as studying a whole range of disciplines and issues would. The thing I love about the liberal arts program is that they teach you to view something through multiple lenses - not just that of a writer but also through that of a historian, economist, chemist, philosopher, psychologist, whatever! The liberal arts introduces you to a range of issues and teach you to view them in different ways, analyse them from every angle.

And then, when you've been exposed to the various disciplines, you draw links between them, because in today's world, no discipline stands alone. With these links formed, you then focus on your major, and then your major becomes more than just one discipline. It's everything.

Literature, to me, is not a discipline. It's a whole range of world issues. Studying Literature means studying how people write about different issues and portray the human condition. You can learn how to write by looking at how other people do that, but not without taking a journey through the root of their inspiration, the issues themselves.

So if you're looking to study Literature, go for the liberal arts. Learn about Africa's history, or genetics, or Confucian ethics, so that when you pick up a novel that happens to address issues like the slave trade or genentic testing on fetuses or Chinese family values, it means so much more to you.

The best part is, I have no idea what career I'll venture into in the future, too. Right now, I think I'll probably work with an NGO. But with a liberal arts education, does it matter? You have the ability to connect ideas and disciplines; analytical skills and critical thinking skills are useful for any profession; most importantly, anything can be learnt. If you feel like going into medicine or law or something else that's very specialised after that, you'll do a postgraduate, but what you gain in the liberal arts will always stay relevant.

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