Jonathan Iwry | On drinking hemlock

The Quaking Point | When it comes to studying the humanities, you’ve Goethe stick to your guns

· April 30, 2014, 7:31 pm   ·  Updated April 30, 2014, 11:03 pm

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T he following is an unapologetic defense of my liberal arts education. This is the most publicity my philosophy career will likely ever receive; with two weeks left as an undergraduate, I feel compelled to speak the truth.

When I was young — young enough to feed peanuts to a VCR because “it looked hungry” — I had a pretty ambitious take on the way things were. Life was about asking questions and looking for solutions. The world and all its contents were a large and exciting puzzle.

It was around that time that I first heard about philosophy, which, I thought, must be the study of dental hygiene. As I got older, I realized that “flossophy” might be slightly more interesting, albeit less practical.

By the time college applications rolled in, I had concluded that studying the Big Questions would be a wise way through the traditional liberal arts education.

The public has been distrustful of philosophers since the dawn of Western civilization. Socrates was put on trial for heresy against the state, during which he delivered his famous Apology for philosophical thought. Socrates had it easy, though — all he had to do was drink hemlock. He never had to explain himself to a room full of Whartonites. At least the Athenians had cultural taste.

As for modern times, it would appear that the unempirical has come under attack across American campuses. Philosophy majors are the butt of many a joke about fast food employment. Sadly, even Thought Catalog published an attack on the humanities that was as pitiful as it was bombastic. (To the haters: Make sure you know how to spell Immanuel Kant’s name before throwing him under the bus.)

To be honest, they might have a point. Physics and math majors are prime for logical reasoning. You can get access to the big questions in business ethics — even if that is an oxymoron. If you want a college experience full of meaning and personal fulfillment, be a nurse (apparently they’re not bad at writing, either).

Even I think philosophy is a bit ridiculous. There is a public perception (read: resentment) of philosophy as being needlessly impractical, and it’s hard to blame them. I knew I was fighting a losing battle when I stumbled across an essay by Heidegger called “What is a Thing?” I Kant even.

No — as a Penn student, the most valuable thing that being a philosophy and history major has taught me isn’t abstract reasoning, close analysis or being well-read, but shameless conviction. It’s about figuring out what you’re interested in and standing up for it, even in the face of ridicule from your peers and the reproach of your parents. The barbarians are still at the gates, but these days, they’ve traded satchels for suits and spears for business cards.

And all jokes aside, the humanities really are valuable in their own respect. Science can teach you how to bring back the dinosaurs; the humanities can teach you why that might not be a great idea. Having a soul doesn’t hurt, either.

The most valuable aspect of philosophy is questioning everything. The ridicule of our peers only fuels our intellectual anger. Be it arguing vehemently in class or debating the meaning of art on College Green, humanities teach the value of asking good questions. Those glossy college brochures actually managed to get something right.

We don’t owe the finance majors an explanation, least of all an apology. The jokes are getting old.

Stop judging us by your standards — the value we create isn’t liquefiable. Naysayers spend their lives in fear of idols; we’re the ones who smash them. Everyone uses their intellect like a hammer, smashing away at their hobbies and trades to craft something meaningful. We’re in the business of building better hammers.

My thesis advisor once told me that according to Wittgenstein, good philosophy is about riding a bicycle as slowly as possible without falling over. The work of the humanities is both a skill and an art, and there is indeed a place for it on the modern college campus. Doing it well, however, requires persistence and resolve — not to mention good balance.

Jonathan Iwry is a College senior studying philosophy from Bethesda, Md. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” His email address is joniwry@gmail.com.

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