I’m becoming increasingly incensed over the whole value-of-a-college-degree debate (The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others, have recently chimed in), mostly because the benefits of a liberal arts education in and of themselves are either given shockingly short shrift or neglected completely. The idea of all but the “top” colleges and universities refurbishing themselves into glorified trade schools, as Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker portends, is horrifying, not simply because I lionize the liberal arts (I am a political science doctoral student, after all), but also because such a scenario would in effect endorse and further the elitism that politicians like Rick Santorum claim to decry —that is, learning for learning’s sake is fine for the students who score the highest and are deemed the “smartest,” but everybody else either doesn’t deserve it or can’t hack it, so let them focus on “practical skills” that, incidentally, won’t necessarily lead to more stable or satisfying jobs).
Luckily, though, I can always turn to David Brooks’s voice of reason. Most other liberals, including my parents, don’t understand my obsession with Brooks, though it’s worth pointing out that his status as “liberals’ favorite conservative” is so clichéd I almost don’t want to publicly admit how much I love him. Nevertheless, this column from 2006 remains one of my all-time favorites, in which Brooks lays out his basic (though obviously not exhaustive) standards for a thorough liberal-arts education. He touts Reinhold Niebuhr, ancient Greece, statistics and foreign languages, and I agree with him on every single point.
That said, I’m not exactly the apotheosis of a classically-educated student. There’s so much I don’t know and so much I haven’t read, and I’m on a continuous quest to fix this. As it happens, I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot a few weeks ago, which I’ll write about soon, and I’ve decided to take a page from Mitchell Grammaticus’s playbook and make myself a summer reading list, designed to rectify at least some of my literary and philosophical deficiencies. I’ve chosen three canonical novels and three works of political science/philosophy, all of which I hope to have completed—and absorbed—by the end of August. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the list; they’re just all books I’m embarrassed to never have read, that interest me (let’s hope) and that I believe to be critical to increasing both my specific educational prerogatives and my general knowledge base.
There’s no telling if I’ll actually manage to get through the entire list in three months; I admit that I very well may not, especially if I get sidetracked by the Coming Aparts and Middlesexes that I really, really want to read. But I’ll be charting my progress here in any event.