By definition, liberal arts majors have to put up with lots of, “What are you going to do with that?”, “Oh, so you want to be a teacher?”, “So what’s the practical application of that?” and (in the case of Plan II majors specifically) the always-clever, always-condescending “Plan II what?” I’ve always been really confident in my choice to study the liberal arts. I know that my discipline and area of study have value in the world that often goes unappreciated or unrecognized. But still, it’s nice to get a little validation.
The best weekly form of positive Plan II energy comes during one of the most technical, science-y classes I’ve taken (and also probably my favorite). The professor is the first engineering professor I’ve ever had, but he’s also the first Plan II alum I’ve taken a class from. It’s been cool to get an alumnus’ perspective on the program, and it’s reassuring to hear the wonderful things he has to say about the major we all love so dearly. (Not that he has room to complain… he did volunteer to teach a Plan II seminar upon returning to UT.)
Today, we had two guest speakers in our class, two relatively-successful energy and environment journalists… one from the Austin area (if local journalism even exists in the age of the internet) and one from Scientific American, a national publication. One topic they kept coming back to as they presented was the importance of good communication skills, most importantly strong writing ability, among professionals in all fields, especially the sciences. Scientists, they say, generally have good ideas and important contributions to make to the general public’s lives, but they often lack the skills to make their ideas matter to the general population.
Both speakers made a point of praising my professor for his ability to bridge the gap, for being a professional with a unique scientific vantage point and the ability to effectively communicate his ideas to others. At first, the implications of these comments didn’t register with me, but after reflecting for a little while, I realized: well yeah! How many doctors of mechanical engineering also took a year of philosophy at the age of nineteen? Or willingly took (and enjoyed) a seminar about King Arthur as an undergrad? Or wrote a sixty-page interdisciplinary liberal arts thesis at twenty-two? Probably not very many, because those endeavors aren’t practical.They’re mind-numbingly academic. They can’t teach you to build or design or engineer or invent anything.
But they do teach you to think. My professor (reportedly) first thought about the future implications of the water and energy crises while in a freshman seminar about world religions. He’s able to talk to my class about the religious meanings of water just as handily and masterfully as he can lecture his engineering classes about the chemical makeup of biofuel. (I clearly know nothing about what engineers really learn.) And he’s able to explain complicated, technical problems to people like me who don’t know a biofuel from a natural gas.
I guess the upshot of this rambling post is that I’m tired of being heckled about my “impractical major.” People like me change the world with our knowledge. Without Plan II, CarMax wouldn’t exist… and where would we be then?!
Also, I’m tired of writing this paper. I guess there are downsides to interdisciplinariness. Call me if you want to give me a job.