Professor of Romance Languages & Literature and Director of meta(LAB) at Harvard
An air of obviousness hovers about a question that haunts many, if not most, university students. Of course, we all know or, rather, presume to know– that the “practical” domains are those in which studies lead straight into the world of work and a well-demarcated career path. Candidates for practicality have traditionally included such domains as business, government, and law. But the road to a job, not to mention the road to an interesting or a satisfying post-studies job, rarely proves linear. Innovation and creativity thrive along zigzags, not straight lines. And straight lines have an uncanny habit of turning into dead ends, vicious circles, or perpetual construction zones. Yesterday’s “guarantees” can reveal themselves to be tomorrow’s mistaken guesses. And as the work lives of individuals today grow ever longer, labor markets, culture, and society continue to evolve ever more quickly, which means perpetual change both within a given indi- vidual profession and across labor markets as a whole.
All of which prompts a deeper question: if the when of practicality represents a shifting ground, what is prac- tical for whom? The word “practical” derives from the ancient Greek word praxis, designating the third of Aris- totle’s varieties of knowledge: the theoretical, whose aim is gaining access to metaphysical truths; the poetical, whose aim is artistic creation; and the practical, whose aim is to give rise to actions in the world (such as in the domains of politics, economics, and ethics). For all its elegance, Aristotle’s scheme is misleading. It obscures the ways in which theoretical inquiry and poetic making are no less actions in the world than are political grass- roots organizing or arguing cases in court. What counts as practical turns out to be more contingent, socially constructed, and idiosyncratic than Aristotle implies or common sense thinking typically implies. All of which
brings us back to the question of “what is practical for whom?” What is practical for me may be impractical for you, all the more so given that factors such as intensity of engagement, tenacity, and passion are far better predic- tors of success than coursework or training. (On-the-job training is the truth of nearly all jobs and professions. At its best, schooling only loosely aligns itself with actual needs on the job.)
To focus only on acquiring accounting or computer programming or pre-law skills may well be desirable for students with an abiding passion for a single domain. But to achieve excellence even in the narrowest sector, there are few substitutes for sustained exposure to a multiplicity of alternative discipline-based views of or modes of engagement with the world. Breadth and depth are rarely enemies when it comes to excellence, not to mention when it comes to developing the sort of nimbleness of mind, flexibility, and ability to adapt to shifting and unforeseen circumstances that the work world today is ever increasingly demanding. Few within the present generation of students will follow single-track career paths in the course of their adult lives. Multiply branching careers are becoming the norm and learning has never been more lifelong than it is in the present era.
Moral of the story: in the course of your studies, explore, stretch your horizons, cast the net widely, even as you dig in deep and discover who you are. As the photographer and fashion designer Cecil Beaton once suggested, the best way to play it safe is to “be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” The byways of impracticality are filled with practical discoveries.