Master of the Examined Life

Teaching what colleges don’t


A good portion of my students say they want to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) following graduation. The degree can apply to music, art, dance, and theater, but its most popular focus, at least among my students, is writing. Some of them do it immediately; others work for a while and save their money. Apparently, the appeal of MFA programs is enormous, despite the slim likelihood that the degree will help graduates land a job.

Only a tiny percentage of students will emerge as writers of fiction or poetry. Most will end up writing press releases, ad copy, technical brochures, or business memos. Some will do no writing at all. I suspect that most MFA students know, deep down, that they are unlikely to become professional writers, but they go for the degree anyway. They want the chance to engage in stimulating discussions before entering the workaday world.

This makes perfect sense to me. Undergraduate colleges don’t provide the sort of experience that an MFA program does, a point I’ve made in a previous column. Undergraduates have distribution requirements to fulfill, papers to write on topics that don’t interest them, and problem sets to turn in by an assigned date. An MFA is a more free-form degree. It allows students to work at their own pace and express themselves in their own way. Because those who pursue an MFA tend to be older, they are ready to appreciate ideas and creative work in a larger context.

If we consider the MFA in these terms, not as a pre-professional degree but as something broader and more flexible, we see that it lends itself to useful variations. Indeed, I’d like to propose a more straightforward approach to what the MFA provides. If it is a way to delay entry into the job market and spend time discovering one’s creative resources, why not say so? Why not call this program the MEL: the Master of the Examined Life. The degree would not require writing, though it would encourage it. It would involve reading about deep, far-reaching subjects, and discussing them.

College is supposed to offer this, of course. Unfortunately, given the economy and changes in the college curriculum, it doesn’t. College rarely leaves room for serious contemplation of the meaning of life and one’s place in it. Students struggle to be admitted, then struggle to fulfill the requirements of a major and establish a profile that will lead to a career. As undergraduates, they work for grades, court professors for recommendations, compete in networking and extracurricular activities, and, in order to relax, throw themselves into partying.

These activities can have merit—even wild partying can teach lessons about social engagement and the pros and cons of sobriety. But they are not conducive to deep thought; they do not illuminate the path one should follow for a meaningful life. The MEL would not have grades or required papers; it would make use of books in a judicious way as springboards for self-knowledge and discussion. (I vote for Montaigne and William James as touchstones here—but reading could just as well be centered on George Eliot or Cormac McCarthy or Dave Eggers.) The program would foster rumination about the self, about society, about the best use of one’s time and energy, about what a fulfilled life can look like for different people and in different circumstances.

Is this a quixotic idea in a strained economy? Fellowships and stipends would have to be plentiful. But such a program seems all the more necessary for many new college graduates in these tough economic times. It would be a way to prepare for the eventual plunge into work. Military service, the Peace Corps, Americorps, and other forms of service do this for some students. The MEL would offer others a thoughtful time-out after the rigors and anxieties of college.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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