I’ve been thinking a lot about why education matters. Or more specifically, why certain education seems to matter more than others — what needs justification and what does not.
Like all freshmen students, I came into Penn lost, confused and in need of guidance. In my own head, I knew what I liked — literature, writing, psychology, stories — but I knew what other people liked — hard, preprofessional routes with clear paths to success. I began doubting my own interests and passions, unsure if the path I wanted to take was a path even worth taking.
I took an advanced poetry writing workshop last semester, and I loved every minute of it. I loved churning out a poem every week, reading the work of my peers, settling into a three-hour class every Tuesday in which I could immerse myself in the words of different poets and writers.
One night, however, I sat down to write my weekly poem with friends who were studying other subjects, ranging from computer science to statistics. As I prepared to pull an all-nighter to painstakingly write a poem worthy of workshopping, my other friends were pulling all-nighters for difficult, technical classes — classes, one could say, that would actually prepare them for jobs in the future. A nagging voice in my head told me what I was doing was somehow less, not worthy, a waste of time.
There have been more instances like this, in which I question or have to justify what I do to myself and to others. What’s the value of spending all night writing a poem? Will it help me get an internship? English majors, or any humanities majors in fact, are often asked why or how they do what they do. What is the value of your education and how will it help you in the “real world”? These are questions that can haunt us.
The sad reality of the culture at Penn is that every choice we make in our education comes with a cost-benefit analysis, a price tag with a clear value written out on it. We don’t take classes unless they fulfill a sector requirement, advance our majors, increase our GPAs or make us look impressive to other people. This attitude isn’t found only at Penn. It’s the increasingly cutthroat professional environment we find ourselves in at elite institutions, attempting to mirror the “real world,” a seemingly more narrow-minded place as we grow in college.
As the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, I know only too well how narrow the professional world can seem. Growing up, law, medicine or engineering were the only three options given to me, and if I even thought to stray, I’d be met with intense opposition from my parents. So far, Penn hasn’t told me anything too different. Though I’ve met incredible people from all sides of the humanities and social sciences, the underlying, pulsing current of pre-professionalism is always present, always visible to me.
I don’t claim to know an answer or a solution to this toxic environment countless students have rallied against. But I do know, and can say so with certainty, that art, for the sake of art, is extremely important and vital to Penn and the world.
The focus and emphasis on STEM, business and other straightforward, calculated concentrations of study has caused us to devalue the humanities, the arts and our inherent longing and passion for humanistic endeavors. When we do everything for a pre-professional purpose, we lose sight of who we are. We lose sight of what makes us human and what makes us connected to each other.
Artistic expression, especially in academia, needs to find a better home here on campus. Amidst a preprofessional atmosphere, which isn’t necessarily all bad, there should also be a college-wide community that fosters artistic growth and encourages it, that doesn’t question it. That doesn’t require an explanation.
I wrote those poems because I loved writing them. For now, that’s a good enough reason to stay up all night to write a poem for me, and that should be good enough for everyone else, too.
JESSICA LI is a rising College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology.
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