So What Are You Going to Do With That? The Liberal Arts at Princeton
Right now, you’re hearing congratulations from your parents, your extended family, your friends, your neighbors, your teachers, your coaches. What you’ll find is that simple celebration yields quickly to questions like What are you going to study? Maybe you don’t yet know the answer to this question—which is not a bad thing—but you can probably come up with a few possibilities. Unless you’re an aspiring engineer, however, or you’re planning to major in a hard science or economics, you’re likely to get the more difficult follow-up question: What are you going to do with that?
The correct answer may well be NOTHING. But this response might leave your family, your friends, your neighbors, your teachers, and your coaches confused, so let’s dig into things a bit. All Princeton students—even engineers—are engaged in the liberal arts. You’ve heard the term, of course, but to many people it invokes only a generic image of broad learning. But in fact the liberal arts tradition emphasizes both breadth of studies and personal development. The crucial thing is less the knowledge or skills you will develop than the personal transformation you will undergo. The old joke about the liberal arts says that such programs make a virtue of not teaching you how to DO anything—not true, of course, as you will pick up useful and marketable foreign language, writing, and quantitative skills along the way, but very true in the sense that the most valuable thing you will take from Princeton is a new consciousness of yourself and the world around you. The things you will be able to do with your education are virtually limitless; a mind shaped by the work of learning and the habit of intellectual inquiry is strong and flexible, not bound by the skill-set or the opportunities of the present moment. For more on the liberal arts tradition, I invite you to read former President Tilghman’s 2010 speech at The Lawrenceville School.
When people ask you what you will do with your education, then, recognize that they’re asking the wrong question. Think rather of what your education will do with you. Who you will become through your experience at Princeton? That’s not a question that you can answer right now–nor can we. And that’s a good thing. But we know that an answer will emerge from you over the course of four exciting years, built from many decisions, large and small. So let go, for the time being, of your specific plans; they may or may not prove relevant to the person who leaves Princeton in four years. You’ll find a lot of ideas and opportunities here that may be unimaginable now, and one of them may well turn out to be the shaping passion of your career and your life. We’ll look forward to walking with you on the journey.
Dr. Axcelson came to Princeton ten years ago from Columbia University, where he taught courses on Eighteenth-Century and Romantic literature and served as a dean in both Columbia College and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He holds a PhD in English Literature from Columbia and has a deep and abiding passion for all things relating to the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the French Revolution; he’s often spotted riding off in mad pursuit of Laurence Sterne, a writer whose view of life he finds remarkably congenial. Dr. Axcelson is also a musician, and he considers himself deeply learned in Dylanology; when home alone, he sometimes indulges a secret passion for classic country music.
Dr. Axcelson lives in Princeton with his wife Helen and his son and daughter—August, 21, and Grace, 14.