When I was an undergrad at Western, I enrolled in a 500 level class called Christian Theology to 1500. My first day in class I discovered that I was one of four undergrads in the class. One of them dropped the course in the first week and the other two were religion/philosophy majors. Everyone else was a grad student working on their master’s, except one guy who was working on his Ph.D. In the first week, our professor provided a list of primary texts from which to choose one work to ‘adopt’ for the semester. We were to do both an oral presentation and a written paper on it, the two projects accounting for 2/3 of our semester grade. It seemed everyone had some idea of what to pick based on which period in history they were focusing on or which aspects of theology interested them. I only recognized a couple names on the list and wanted to do Augustine’s piece on free will, but it was already taken. When I approached my professor for help in choosing a piece, she asked, “well what’s your major?” “Creative writing,” I replied, and the look on her face screamed what the hell are you doing in this class? But, God bless her, she didn’t say it. She simply replied, “Why don’t you do Pseudo-Dionysius; he was pretty creative.” But between the look on her face and my knowledge that all the other students in the class had extensive academic backgrounds in the subject, I was intimidated and began to ask myself the question what the hell are you doing in this class?
I had signed up for the course because the subject interested me, so I stayed in the class. Over time I learned that even though they were grad students, most of my classmates were idiots. While they might have known a great deal about a small slice of world history, they didn’t seem to know much about anything else. That’s when I learned not to be automatically impressed by a person’s educational background. You can have a master’s and still be pretty stupid. (A certain ex comes to mind…) Don’t misunderstand me: I value education and believe that pursuing higher degrees is usually commendable. I just believe in the liberal arts model of education that promotes study in a variety of subjects.
I believe it’s generally better to know a little about a lot of things than to be an expert on one thing and know very little about anything else. Pascal shares my belief in the value of well-roundedness. Well-roundedness stretches you. We all have our comfort zones, the things that come easily to us, but when we go beyond our comfort zones and try things that require more effort on our part, it is good for us. Pushing yourself to explore academic subjects that you don’t naturally gravitate toward or to take up a sport when you’re not a natural athlete or to try an art form when you were not born with artistic talent helps build your brain and your character.
I’ve always been curious about a variety of things. Novelty appeals to me and I consider myself a lifelong learner. While being a “Renaissance woman” helps my brain and character, perhaps my favorite benefit is that it gives me the ability to get along with a greater variety of people. Each interest I pursue is one more thing I can talk about with people. I make it almost a game, finding out what I have in common with someone.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is something my dad told me when I was in high school: “Don’t ever worry about your education being practical.” At the time he was encouraging me to pursue the creative writing major I desired even though it’s not as practical as, say, a business degree. The wisdom of the advice is much farther reaching than degree choice, however. For example, I took calculus in high school and while I have never used calculus a day in my life since then, I’m glad I took it, as I believe the discipline worked my “brain muscles.” Similarly, there are loads of other things I’ve studied or done that were “impractical.” Learning to belly dance or write my name in Egyptian hieroglyphics aren’t things that will make me money or improve my resume, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. It’s just that the value is less quantifiable. When I can get a reluctant student’s attention by quoting Monty Python or when I can make a new acquaintance feel at ease by striking up a conversation about their tattoo’s literary allusion, my vast wealth of “useless” information pays off. And one day, when I finally get on Jeopardy! it will literally pay off.