LEYZEROVYCH: Scholarship will come to embody liberal arts

Column: American Insights

In his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College out in Gambier, Ohio, the late novelist David Foster Wallace told this great anecdote: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How's the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

The anecdote was told to a small crowd of soon-to-be graduates of a liberal arts college and not for nothing. Wallace, somewhat of a liberal-arts fiend who studied at Amherst College, then University of Arizona for his Master of Fine Arts and Harvard University for a doctorate, knew exactly the sentiment the anecdote would raise. 

Because that “What the hell is water?” question is central to the old tradition of American liberal arts education. Specifically, it is the answer to that question that liberal arts attempts to foster. 

By design, the liberal arts experience is a form of meta-education, a way to teach you how to think and how to choose what to think about, not specifically teach you what to think.

In the United States, the marketing of the liberal arts experience has been quite aggressive. For a while, liberal arts was all you had in terms of education. In the 18th, 19th and a large part of the 20th centuries, you would go to college to study classics, philosophy, history or any number of other such fields. 

The hands-on experience was discrete and often defined by apprenticeships granted either after a successful college career or after no college education at all, if what you wanted to study was a, what you would call now, blue-collar vocation. 

I tend to believe the importance of liberal arts to Americans came from revolutionary roots and that the freedom of thought in education was a party in response to British colonialism. Fear of indoctrination is very American, so once the Founding Fathers fought off the British, it was the legacy of the children of freedom to think freely.

To this day, liberal arts institutions are certainly different from other universities. They are private, have small student populations, low acceptance rates and generally do not offer majors such as finance, accounting or engineering, all fields of study that develop skills that can be applied directly to a nonscholarly profession.

Being a student of a public university with an enormous student body, a rather high acceptance rate and a highly developed business school, engineering school and pharmacy school, I tend to look with some skepticism on to the structural integrity of the liberal arts experience, especially its nebulousness in an America defined by professional granularity and grueling financial obligations. 

So to that critical question of “What the hell is water?” my answer is: I do not have a clue. 

Not yet anyways. I am surely swimming in something as we all are, but what it is to me I do not yet know. What I do know is that in modern America the price tag for seeking out what is up with that water is mouth-dropping. 

And I do not particularly understand why I or any other person my age would need a diploma signifying that I found out what the hell water is. Because what if, after four whole years, I have not? And what if only after graduating with a degree in water-seeking, I finally find out what water is and it is not the Emersonian, lucid water that Wallace is implying, but water of unenlightened elephantine liabilities gorging themselves on interest. That is not the water I want to swim in.

I can hear future and current scholars who will spend their lives in the minutia of their liberal arts fields scoffing at me, thinking I am dull, uninspired and materialistic. And perhaps compared to them, I am. But I am not writing as an aspiring scholar, but rather as hopeful future practitioner. 

I am a finance major. I am interested in financial valuations, fluctuating commodity markets and proper investment due diligence and as a member of an overwhelmingly work-to-live culture, in 10 years when I am asked by my fellow fish "What the hell is water?" I will likely point to my profession. 

I believe that the American system of higher education will continue evolving, as will the American industrial capitalist system, and at some point, the liberal arts experience will be defined solely by scholarship. The practitioner will stray away. American pragmatism will prosper. 

Morning, boys. How is the water?

Yan Leyzerovych is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in finance. His column, “American Insights,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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