Useless Studies

In reading “Cross Currents,” the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences magazine from Northwestern University, I came across a story written by Phyllis Billington who graduated from that university in 1949 with a major in philosophy. Asked why on earth she majored in philosophy, she responded “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.” Mrs. Billington also studied piano on a Fulbright and was a cover-girl for McCall’s magazine. She studied harpsichord in Belgium with a concert performer trained by the  world-famous Wanda Landowska. A most impressive resumé, indeed!

But Mrs Billington’s response to the question of why on earth she majored in philosophy (especially in the 1940’s) was what intrigued me about the article. Of course, it was easier to study “useless” subjects in the 40s of the last century as the pressure to study something practical, something with immediate cash value, hadn’t yet begun to mount. But it was still quire remarkable, especially for a woman at that time. (That’s not a sexist remark: there simply weren’t that many women in college in the 1940s, much less majoring in philosophy! In fact, there weren’t that many men studying philosophy then or now.)

Philosophy is one of those “useless” subjects, along with English and History, that have come into disrepute these days as the colleges and universities shift their emphasis to vocational studies. Since the 50s, especially, the stress has been on the useful subjects — for the reasons already mentioned. But it is precisely the useless subjects that are the most valuable. After all, utility is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Useful, practical courses in college, courses designed to get the student the first job, teach students know-how. Seldom do they concern themselves with know-why. It is the liberal studies, the useless courses, that help us to understand the why of things. These are the courses that push us to a deeper understanding of the world around us and have permanent value — as reflected in Mrs. Billington’s remarks.

I also studied philosophy and my wife majored in Latin in college. We both had to answer those embarrassing questions: what will you do with THAT? And neither of us had the insightful answer Mrs. Billington had in response to the same question. Usually when I tell people I studied and taught philosophy I am met with embarrassed silence, or, perhaps, a smile and a “Oh yes, that’s where people lie on a couch and you ask them questions!” Not really. But we do ask questions, questions that don’t even have answers as a rule. Those are the only questions worth asking, but many people find that sort of thing frustrating as they want simple answers to complex questions (which explains the popularity of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh). But asking questions is the way we start out in life and it is what allows the mind to gain nourishment and grow. It’s all about keeping the mind alive. Thanks for reminding me, Mrs. Billington!

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