By Jeff McLaughlin ’92, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The Whale
It’s November in Minnesota, which means on any given day it can be cold, or lukewarm, or snow, or rain, or be sunny, or all of the above. But the weather is easy to talk about. Let’s talk about something more challenging.
So: a core component of a liberal arts education is the humanities. Humanities are, in brief, the study of those things that make us most human – ideas, culture, beliefs, and personality. At a liberal arts college like St. Olaf, it means majors like English, history, and political science. On a day-to-day basis, it means reading important texts, some of them thousands of years old, some of them relatively recent. About 20% of our graduates every year are humanities majors, but 100% take humanities courses.
A natural question (and questions are good, and a key part of a liberal arts education) is this: what good is reading old books? Or, to acknowledge the quote above, what good is reading Moby Dick? And finally, can I get a job if I major in English (or some other old-fashioned sounding major)?
Here’s one way of looking at Moby Dick. It’s three books in one. There is value in each section, even to students today.
First, it’s an encyclopedia of all things whaling. Most of this specific knowledge is not incredibly useful today, even for people with significant interest in marine biology. After all, we know a lot more about whales in 2013 than Melville did in 1851. What is important about this section is this: economies change and life changes. As surely as whale oil has become an obsolete source of light, technologies today, entire industries today, will become obsolete. The best way to predict the future? Understand the patterns of the past. Patterns of human behavior that were true in the 1850s are often still true.
Second, it’s an adventure story. This is the most fun part of the book. An obsessive man forces a ship full of reluctant sailors to chase a white whale all around the globe. There are lessons about leadership, multicultural relations, the strengths and weaknesses of obsessive personalities, and yes, ego and the limits of any individual person.
Third, it is a meditation on predestination. Early in the book it is fairly clear what the end will be. As we think about our own lives, how much control do we have? Is everything we do predetermined by our genes, or God, or economic forces beyond our control? Can we ever have definitive answers to these questions?
So in an English course you’ll have to read and grapple with a big, heavy text. You’ll have to think about difficult ideas. You’ll have to communicate with other people from a variety of backgrounds. You’ll have to analyze complicated texts and confront difficult ideas. Finally, you’ll have to write something thoughtful and complex in a clear way.
In your jobs beyond college? You’ll have to work with a variety of other people. You’ll have to grapple with tough ideas. You’ll have to know your own limits. You’ll have to be able to express yourself thoughtfully. Career success is a lot harder than reading an old book. But reading an old book makes it a lot easier.