A Polar Bear In The Savanna

The auditorium is full on strange faces. A heated debate raises the temperature in the room as arguments between the professor and the students fly ferociously back and forth. I can tell it’s an argument only by the aggravated expression on the professor’s face, but what the argument is about escapes me. I’m too busy trying to put the content of the lecture together from the foreign signs on the slides. I can feel the panic slowly rising from the pit of my stomach, swelling as it makes it’s way up past my lungs and towards my throat, where it lodges the size of a ping pong ball. I calm myself by admitting that I genuinely do not understand what’s being said, make myself comfortable and just take in the strangeness of my new surroundings. I’m not writing about a booze-infused Erasmus exchange in a far-off land. Feeling absolutely out of place, doesn’t require paying for airfare. I’m merely sitting in my first economics lecture of the spring term. But as a liberal arts student, I might as well be a polar bear in the savanna.

Beginning minor subject studies is a taunting prospect in itself; you have after all devoted a large portion of time developing foundational knowledge of your major. To have chosen a minor that’s light-years away from language and literature—my preferred domain—has at times felt like a suicide attempt.

Without a natural aptitude for math and no prior knowledge of world economics, I’ve sat many a Sunday night having a stare-down with the homework and wishing simultaneous translation from economics jargon to Finnish was offered in the lectures.

Months later, on gloomy January afternoon I’m sitting in the lecture hall as usual, listening to the rising and falling intonation of a language I don’t understand, when all of the sudden I find myself nodding in agreement with the professor. It takes a moment to realize I’m nodding because he’s speaking a language I understand. Had this moment been drawn into a cartoon, I would have been the person with a brightly burning light bulb hanging over my head. One realization after another hits my consciousness. Anxiety turns into pure bliss as the dots connect and the world of economic theory begins unfolding before my eyes.

Studying economics, or anything for that matter is, in essence, learning a new language. Just like in Saussure’s linguistic sign theory, economic theory consists of concepts with signifiers and just as in language acquisition I learn by making connections between concepts and their corresponding terms. This realization has brought what before seemed foreign and unrelated, to the realm of things I can comprehend and relate to. I’ve come to see that things are far more interconnected than may first appear.

(Taken by Inka Vappula)

There are of course advantages to choosing a minor close to home. Acquiring a level expertise in any given subject naturally requires focus, which makes branching out into unfamiliar and (seemingly) unrelated fields look like a useless endeavor, a waste of time. A clearly outlined study plans shows determination and assertiveness and related study subjects can be advantageous in terms of future job prospects. In short, it’s easier, more practical and efficient to construct a study plan with related minor and major subjects; studies in a neat 5-year, government approved package. For some this is the right path to take. Highly specialized expertise is desirable for a highly specialized career and that is an admirable goal.

But a clearly outlined career plan is not a collective desire. Some place intrinsic value on acquiring knowledge. Furthermore, there is a possibility that efficiency thinking can accidentally trample academia, the unhindered accumulation of knowledge under its feet. So why might it be worthwhile to branch out and match philology with social sciences or even something as wild as biology?

Comprehensive knowledge always opens new horizons and triggers innovation. There’s an art to learning how to learn and to making mental connections between bits and pieces of information to construct a coherent whole. These are valuable assets in themselves. To top it off, let’s not forget the thrill and invigoration of learning something new.

To shy away from “unrelated” disciplines on account of their unfamiliarity, seem to me a silly reason. The more wide-ranging ones network of knowledge is, the easier it becomes to add new information to it.  So to all the wandering wonderers of the university halls, the people that find themselves at departments no one seems to know about, I say this, adventure into new territories and enjoy the immense pool of knowledge available to you without hesitation.

Photo of the Month: February

Chief Editor's Note: Is it 2015 already?