From a fellow student…

There were once men who weren’t admirable because they knew a lot about one thing; they were famous because they knew a lot about many things. These were the pioneers of their era: Newton, Franklin and even Einstein. They are a reflection of an older time – not their time, but the time of Enlightenment. And the preeminent figure of the Enlightenment was Leonardo da Vinci. His knowledge of several scientific and philosophical fields is a demonstration of the culture of the time, a promotion of a well-rounded knowledge base. Nowadays, this sort of pedantic mastery of subjects is cleverly disguised as pretentiousness. Take this exchange:

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

“Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist.”

Said Steve Rogers to Tony Stark and then Tony Stark back to Steve Rogers. If you haven’t guessed by now, the exchange is from Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Unfortunately, what’s missed is the fact that most people in a society that hinges on specialization don’t have anything past that initial “armor.” Specialization is rooted in our society as a mechanism to create the most efficient free market society. Now, the U.S. is defined as a mixed economy, but the catering to efficiency and ways to make the highest profit justified in some Machiavellian adage, forces individuals to lose sight of other aspects of society, which isn’t a good thing.

Many people in the U.S. are so heavily career-driven that, from an early age, they are told to give up flighty dreams of becoming astronauts or firemen in place of more pragmatic careers like becoming a doctor or engineer. It is indoctrinated in us that ultimately, finding enjoyment is concurrent with having a job as lucrative as possible. Of course, this is done with the best of intentions – mostly by parents wishing the best for their children – but this has fostered a change in our society that makes goals and forward progress the initiative. So, the aspiration for most adolescents looking for a career is to hope that perhaps an interest they have can end up being lucrative. In fact, we look at people who come to college as undeclared with a sense of trepidation for them, but most times, we are actually as undecided as they are.

The career-driven optics of American society have created a vacuum for young people that is impossible to escape from. So, school subjects are evaluated based on future usability, i.e. “Will I really need to use chain rule in real life?” Rarely do we look at a subject for what it is. Most of the subjects I’m talking about are those in the liberal arts, as there is a societal push toward highly-skilled, highly-paid jobs to improve America’s standing in the world. So, we arrive at the crux of the problem: Why should we care about the arts and humanities because it’s not pragmatically needed and economically efficient (most artists die broke)?

Primary and secondary education systems make tepid efforts at ingratiating us in the arts with electives and semi-weekly elementary classes called “art” or “music.” And then those few with some innate ability for individual expression end up pursuing the arts, in the face of less money and a lower likelihood for major success. These half-hearted attempts do little to deter people who are seeking better financial opportunities – probably because they don’t have a passion anyway, as it is hard to have a passion if it’s fueled by calculated decisions. Therefore, inherently, we are less likely to pursue a liberal arts major for fear of no strong economic benefit. And if that is the case, then why even bother studying the arts and humanities? And the real problem is that many people do not see a direct, tangible benefit of doing so, and, there’s a chance it could become saturated (more than it already is). And even at Northeastern University (NU), these NU Path requirements for most have become yet another obstacle to overcome as fast as possible. People want to take classes in the arts, for example, because it satisfies the requirement for NU Path, but it’s so easy to forget why these requirements were even put into place.

Let’s consider this hypothetical. The Mona Lisa spontaneously combusts and is no longer a part of the physical world. How long would you suppose the world would mourn for da Vinci’s masterpiece? Several weeks? Now consider how long American society has sensationalized the death of Harambe. Clearly, the Mona Lisa possesses greater cultural value, but perhaps value that is better suited for an older time. Harambe is so in right now that everyone wants a part of that action – similar to the Harlem Shake and the Ice Bucket Challenge before it. It’s a temporary craze that we all engage in before we move on to the next thing: A byproduct of our constant evolution in a goal-driven society (how quickly can I move from Point A to Point B?). And so, these hyper-generational shift to promote monetary success a la the ’80s shows us a divide between even our parents and us in educational values.

There is little to no prioritization of the arts/history/etc. in society because of their lack of immediate monetary value in the job market. This is driven by over-specialization in society to become really, really good at one thing (with the caveat that the one thing requires intensive training, e.g. college education) and lose appreciation for the aspects that really define a society. It’s possible to even include literature as a lost art because of the shift to vocal debating over written rhetoric. But, the arts and history and literature is truly what defines an era, and forgoing learning or even caring about the past is not too many shades away from pure ignorance. Some things are so essential to a communal identity that it’s an insult to the era to not be somewhat well-versed in 1930s politics or 18th century literature or even baroque art. The liberal arts are essential to society because they aren’t pragmatically needed for survival, but they are needed for enrichment. To aggrandize society. To show off. To make a statement that this is what we can do, without incentive. Those lost arts are as much of our culture than any technological advance, if not more.

Leonardo da Vinci was called the “Renaissance Man.” He was good at everything. He pursued different fields to better society, but also for the sake of it. Unfortunately, we’ve progressed to the point where specialization and becoming a Renaissance Man are mutually exclusive events. It seems impossible to me to be so heavily invested in so many topics. Maybe he could be this way because he was fortunate enough to possess the time and resources in a society so receptive to intellectual thinking. And maybe the intelligent thought of this time is focused on ruthless competition and survival of the fittest. And, so we encounter the death of the Renaissance Man. He no longer exists because he is no longer efficient. He no longer exists because we don’t care enough about the right things because we care too much about the material things. He can exist again if we shift society’s focus more towards learning for learning’s sake, and not purely for benefit. We should do it so men like da Vinci can exist again, if nothing else.

 

  • – Lal Birali is a freshman pursuing a combined major in computer science and business.

 

Photo courtesy of computerligator, Creative Commons