A Response to the Cynical Student

When are you ever gonna use this? Often.

You’ve heard the complaints: When am I ever gonna use this? How is this relevant to the real world? How is reading Shakespeare going to make me a better banker?

I don’t run into this kind of thinking as frequently in the economics classroom, but I hear my students’ complaints about their other courses pretty regularly (and maybe professors in those courses hear students’ complaints about mine). Why, they wonder, are they expected to study art history? Or biology? Or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Or Mesoamerican mythology? When are they ever gonna use this stuff?

My answer? Literally every time they make an important decision.

The ideas you encounter, consider, and adopt shape the kind of person you become. Liberal education is not about helping you sound impressive at snooty parties. It’s about you becoming a particular kind of person: reflective, analytical, and capable of sound evaluation and sound judgment. To this end, college means a few years marinating in the best that has ever been thought and written by the greatest minds our species has produced.

The ideas you encounter, consider, and adopt shape the kind of person you become.That is the ideal, at any rate. A lot goes sideways between vision and implementation, and it’s the rare person who makes the most of a golden opportunity. Some of us find ourselves lamenting, with the bald man telling George Bailey to kiss Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life, that “youth is wasted on the wrong people.”

But we all have time to repent and turn from our wicked ways. College students have more of it. The book of Proverbs implores its readers to surround themselves with wise counselors offering wise guidance. What wiser counselors are there than Saint Augustine, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and their peers, who find themselves represented in collections like the Great Books of the Western World and the Harvard Classics, and who have appeared on college syllabi and reading lists for generations? Is Polonius offering wise guidance when he tells Laertes, “The apparel oft proclaims the man”? How about when he says, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”? Or: “To thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man”?

Might it be possible that “neither a borrower nor a lender be” has something important to say to an aspiring banker, even if those are the words of a fool? Is it possible, too, that we can turn to T.S. Eliot and Prufrock for additional insight?

As it happens, we can:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.


I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Will your boss ever ask you to comment on how Eliot invokes Hamlet or the theme of mortality in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Doubtful. Will you grow old? God willing, you will.

Looking back, with the bottoms of your trousers rolled, how will you know you lived well? Or, as Sarah Skwire puts it, “Using poetry … helps us think about opportunity costs that travel alongside, but are not the same as, the ways that economists think about them.”

Or consider the conversation between Pyrrhus and Cineas in Plutarch’s Lives. Will Pyrrhus be satisfied after conquering Italy? No, he will turn his eyes toward Sicily. After Sicily, Libya and Carthage, then Macedon and Greece, at which point he tells Cineas, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

Reading the classics helps us see how our original questions, new insights, and unique issues … aren’t.Cineas replies, “And what hinders us now, sir, if we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand without trouble all those necessary things, to which through much blood and great labour, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others, we design at last to arrive?”

As Russell Roberts points out in his excellent book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, the story’s endurance suggests that it addresses transcendent questions about what it means to live well. That we’re still reading it suggests we don’t have a perfect answer. Furthermore, reading the classics helps us see how our original questions, new insights, and unique issues … aren’t. The existential questions that seem so unique to our day and age are questions people have wrestled with for millennia. There is nothing new under the sun.

Of course, your boss won’t ask you to write philosophical treatises or literary criticism. Similarly, I doubt my intermediate macroeconomics students will ever be in a career where they have to solve for the steady state in the Solow growth model. But, as Ayn Rand put it through one of her characters, Atlas Shrugged’s Hugh Akston, “All work is an act of philosophy.” You’re gonna use this every time you do anything, because “this” influences the kind of person you become.

It is said that you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time, so we need to choose wisely. In the English Standard Version, 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” The New International Version says, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” The King James Version puts it this way: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” You’re reading Plutarch, Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Shakespeare not because they will teach you specific technical skills useful for the job someday, but because they’re good company—the kind of company that will come to your aid and offer wise counsel every time you have an important decision to make.

Art Carden is the Margaret Gage Bush Distinguished Professor of Business and a Medical Properties Trust fellow at Samford University. He is the author (with Deirdre Nansen McCloskey) of Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World.