It’s cliché but true: a great teacher can change your life. In college, I majored in economics, a discipline which attracts me because it provides a rigorous quantitative framework that can be applied to examine any type of social or political problem. But on a whim in my junior year of college, I switched out of a mathematical economics class and into a class about King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Joan of Arc. The professor had an excellent reputation, and I’d always loved reading. At the time, I felt that equations were valuable, but on their own, they didn’t always spark my interest.
Suddenly my worldview changed: reading assorted tales of medieval adventure, I realized that literature tackles many of the same problems I’d always assumed that I needed an economics degree to examine, and that the ways books investigate these problems is vivid and imaginative in a way not always permitted by the strict rules of economic analysis. The mechanisms used by the books I was reading – language and narrative structures – are more communicative, more descriptive, and more seductive than numbers; they animated the economic and political principles at stake.
My economics research focused on trends in contemporary U.S. income inequality. A thousand years ago, tales of Robin Hood examined similar disparities between rich and poor; tales of Arthur and his knights explored concepts of democracy and tinkered with the idea of placing political power in the hands of the populace. Deep in the midst of feudalism, progressive taxation and democracy were impossibilities in England, yet there they were, staring at me in attractively heroic form. I was—and still am—hooked.
Reading literature forces me to re-examine my analytical assumptions as an economist; economics grounds my study of literature. But I might not have figured that out if I hadn’t taken a chance and switched into a class very different from the ones offered in my major. Most people encourage you to streamline your interests and focus so that you become efficient at one thing. Efficiency is important, but it also pays off to resist this process of narrowing down. Being able to think in multiple ways will allow you to come up with creative solutions that you might miss otherwise. And of course, it’s also more fun.
By Elias Leight, Private Tutor