The second story in this week's episodes (listen to the free podcast here) was about the Lifeboat Debates at the University of Montevallo. Each year for the past twelve years, the University has sponsored a debate where the professors from each department have to convince the attendees why if the world were to end their department should be saved. Now the story on TAL is interesting, where a non-tenured professor takes the entire faculty to task for not taking the debate seriously, but it got me thinking: could you make that argument for your major's department?
Imagine: the world is ending, or close to it, and most knowledge will be lost. You can save one body of knowledge and everything else must be rediscovered. Which knowledge would you save? Art? Literature? Medicine? Chemistry? Philosophy? Do you choose based on practicality? Quality of life? Knowledge for its own sake? What is your criteria for deciding which knowledge is valuable and which knowledge is the most valuable?
Now most of you reading this either have a bachelor's degree or are in the process of earning one. Did you consider your major for the knowledge you would save? If not, you should be seriously worried.
This question, and as TAL says, the entire debate, forces you to ask the question that scares the shit out of every liberal arts student: is what I'm learning really valuable? Now I'm not saying that you need to panic if you didn't choose your major as the essential knowledge (I was an English major and I'm torn between history and agriculture for the knowledge I'd save) but if you can't make a persuasive case why your field should even be considered, you're saying that you've spent four years of your life learning something of no real use.
Knowledge is valuable but the thing about value is that it's extremely relative. Knowledge has value because we credit it as having such. Even if I wouldn't give English the first seat on the boat, I'd still try to find a space for it. The ability to communicate, to persuade, to explore hypothetical situations, or to be inspired by literature, all of these are tools that would be critical, if not exactly essential, to building a new world. Though I've not had a job based on my English degree since graduating, it's certainly proved useful in every job I've had in the past five years. You don't need to have a skill essential for the world to survive but you'd better make sure the skills your learning improve the world.
Otherwise, what's the point?