Studying the arts is a confusing mess, but it’s one you can learn to love

By Alex Trachsell, Features/Op-eds Staff Writer

Image source: Pexels

The social sciences and humanities are rife with disagreement. Of course, disagreement is present (if not necessary) in the physical and natural sciences too, but at least science students get to take part in some kind of progress. In many arts fields, however, progress is not just absent—the very idea of it is considered repulsive, imperialist, presumptive, etc.

No, instead of progress, us arts students get to be schooled in a string of theories and counter-theories. In philosophy, for example, we study a 3000-year-old history of thinkers who have only found new and intriguing ways to reach dead ends. At times, all proposed answers to any of life’s big questions seem flawed, but you fare no better when you try to propose your own. Other times, you read one argument and you’re convinced. Then you read an argument that counters the former… and you’re convinced. Then you go back to the original argument and you’re convinced… Finally, you might approach a topic and survey a variety of arguments. Perhaps all seem flawed and then you lay your eyes on an argument that seems to get everything right. At long last, it looks like you’ve found an answer! Something to base an outlook around! Something you can tell your BSc-friends about in a final attempt to make it look like your major might actually be worth something!

Then you get to your tutorial and no one can believe you were convinced by the argument.

Ironically, even philosophers have drawn their attention to what effects all these conflicting viewpoints have on students. For example, Professor Kieren Setiya argues in Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth? that moral philosophy (the study of what is good/right and bad/wrong) actively engenders disillusionment (which good ol’ Google defines as “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be”). On the one hand, it reveals just how commonplace disagreement over morality is (anyone heard of the trolley cart problem?). On the other hand, it fails to present a means by which these disagreements can be resolved. On a less theoretical angle, the university experience itself might contribute to this. As a first year philosophy student, professors have a pretty influential position (I’d say “near god-like status” if I wasn’t trying to be restrained) and up to decades of experience. Thus, hearing them rhyme off (“expound off,” to be more accurate) a slew of contradicting arguments sounds like a pretty clear message: this field has gone nowhere.

Where does this leave the student? Well, maybe philosophy’s nagging questions enticed you. Perhaps you were hoping to find answers or just enrich your opinions and maybe even end up with a different outlook on politics, religion, pedagogy…or life as a whole. Like a fool, you might have even been planning to take action on what you learned.

Seeing that there are no answers (you probably should have at least seen that coming) and having your opinions demolished in millennia-old philosophical crossfire, you realize that there’s nowhere you can take what you’ve learned. What action can you take when you realize you know so little about what is good for people or what the right thing to do is? What action can you take when you don’t have enough confidence in any principles which might guide you?

Needless to say, this experience can put students in a pretty dark place. Not only have you bought an education, but you just used it to learn that you’ll never have confidence in your opinions again (and that’s the best case scenario—if a parent paid your way in you get to enjoy the gnawing feeling of wasting their money). It’s like purchasing the grandest of grand pianos just to learn, after hearing it play its first ever note, that music is a meaningless waste of time and money. Now you have some rough decisions to make: force your way through your degree with nothing but resentment for the disciple or switch programs and take the chance that you can enjoy a different discipline. Try to embrace some kind of morbid curiosity you might be able to muster for this irrelevant discipline or try to reclaim your innocence and believe that there really might be some kind of progress to be made in it? Unfortunately, the stream of work university also brings along with it (I know not to limit this to philosophy) can make it incredibly difficult to take the time to consider these options. Instead, it’s far too easy to just try to let these worries fester, eventually turning into a mental health issue as the stress of putting off these options continues to build. Fortunately, you’ve read this far and so I’m pleased to offer you some “solutions.”

The first is a classic, if somewhat harsh, trick. Keep this in mind: you’ve probably got another sixty-and-change years before you poof into nothing (or at least something pretty different from what you are now). You can go ahead and switch to some field with “answers” and “progress,” but you’ll be spending those years adding, pleasing customers, pleasing superiors, subtracting, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that and not that arts/philosophy students get to live outside of the more banal parts of the working life, but just remember that you may have chosen to pursue an arts discipline because of where it puts you in society. You’re less likely to be cost-cutting, profit-maximizing, or time-saving than those in non-arts disciplines. Of course, all of these activities are respectable components of the capitalist enterprise, which generally raises standards of living. After all, I like the efficiency of saving time and costs as much as the next economics student (what can I say? – my economics minor has finally gotten to me). However, instead of single-mindedly seeking ways to improve people’s material standard of living within our liberal democracy (which our ideology cares so much about), you get to at least think outside it and maybe encourage others to do the same. When you get outside, maybe there’s nothing there, no clear answers, but you do get to step outside for fresh air. That’s not something everyone’s discipline allows them to do.

In a sense, it’s too late to settle for anything else. If you’ve become disillusioned with your pursuits in the arts, it’s too late to turn away and just ignore it. Once your innocence is gone, it’s gone.

In a sense, it’s too late to settle for anything else. If you’ve become disillusioned with your pursuits in the arts, it’s too late to turn away and just ignore it. Once your innocence is gone, it’s gone. You can’t just go back to being a hard-and-fast believer in liberal democracy. You won’t be able to work a 9-to-5 job and then come home and have an idle debate with your family over what extent the government should mandate vaccinations when you’re unsure whether the government itself is legitimate, with absolute power (thanks, Thomas Hobbes), or illegitimate. 

There’s the stick, here’s the carrot: just because there are no satisfying answers doesn’t mean that asking the questions can’t be satisfying. Accepting the world as it is and making it your goal to instead explore its many gray zones and contradictions can be highly liberating. There’s beauty to be found in the process. Additionally, some of the best art makes the more confident among us question our beliefs and, as a jaded arts student, you might be in the best position to do so. In this sense, using art to express one’s disillusionment can be cathartic for the artist and a public service for the overconfident.

Besides being a coping mechanism, art may even be a more genuine form of many arts disciplines. It’s no secret that the academic world incentivizes brash, striking papers that take a hard stance on a subject. Often, this confidence seems out of place, given the lack of clear answers in the arts. Conversely, art allows for contradiction and confusion. Gone are the strong-willed theses, replaced by various characters and settings, who can each represent different, irreconcilable viewpoints. Thus, art can provide an intellectual outlet for arts students, which is more true to their academic experience than typical essays and theses.

After all these ramblings, do you think I’m wrong? Is the expression and acceptance of confusion no more satisfying than the confusion itself? Are you still paralyzed by the lack of certainly-true-and-right principles to guide your action?  Then, sure, make it your life goal to combat my cheery absurdism. Let every action you take be guided by the desire to spread your nihilism and… oh wait. It looks like you might have, at least partially, solved your problem.

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