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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

An apology for majoring in both business and liberal studies

This past summer, my friends and I made a joint goal to finish reading the colossus that is “Anna Karenina.” At over 800 pages, this piece of Russian literature is one Leo Tolstoy’s most famous works, second only to “War and Peace.” My friend group and I all started this book at different points of our lives but failed to finish the work. This time, our joint mission and incentive was to watch the film version (directed by Joe Wright, featuring Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna and Count Vronsky respectively).  

 It took me nearly a month to complete the text, and I couldn’t help but feel like “Anna Karenina” followed me everywhere. I was consumed by the work and found it popping up in my daily life (more specifically, my summer course that I was taking — managerial economics). To accommodate my study abroad schedule in junior spring, I decided to get ahead and take a class required for all business majors in Mendoza. I supposed with the extra time summer brought, I would focus better on the partial derivatives and game theory necessary for a successful completion of the course. 

 However, I was surprised at how much I connected managerial economics with “Anna Karenina.” For example, I was looking at my assigned reading and, in the article, “Competition Is for Losers” by Peter Thiel, he ends the piece by doing a spin-off of Tolstoy’s famous opening, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Instead, Thiel offers that business is the opposite, and that “All failed companies are the same: They failed to escape competition.” It is the monopolies (happy families) who solve unique problems and differentiate themselves who are successful. 

 To provide some context about the text, “Anna Karenina” follows the scandalizing story of the eponymous character’s affair with Count Vronksy, and the social dilemmas that surround the circumstance. This is a very condensed one-sentence summary that doesn’t nearly begin to cover the layers and intricacies of the book. However, when one of my friends and I discussed our thoughts on it, we were both struck with the question “Why was it named ‘Anna Karenina’?”

 For most of the text, other characters besides Anna Karenina were the subject of Tolstoy’s prose. For almost 100 pages, we read about Levin’s accordance with the plight of the peasants, as he takes to the field with his scythe. We read about political hearings and listen to Kitty’s qualms. But we very rarely get much time with Anna Karenina herself. As I considered this question more and more, I realized that perhaps that was the beauty of the text, and that it could be answered using the concept I revisited in managerial economics that summer.

 According to the law of diminishing marginal utility, when the quantity of something increases, its marginal utility decreases and vice versa. This inverse relationship put in layman’s terms shows that the less of something we have (the presence of scarcity), the more valuable it becomes, and the more it is revered. In the same way, I considered Tolstoy’s careful placement of Anna Karenina in the text. Whenever I started to get wrapped up in her storyline, wanting to read on and on about her dissent into dejection and frustration, Tolstoy would simply switch the storyline to another character, and I was left wanting more. Anna Karenina throughout the text is very much unavailable to the other characters; she has an air of elusiveness that makes her all-the-more attractive and alluring. In the same way, as readers, we feel the intangibility of her character, and it is almost as Tolstoy transports her illusory but captivating presence to his audience. I only began to articulate this thought one night as I was in the middle of a practice set for managerial econ.

 A lot of people question my choice to study both business (marketing) and the program of liberal studies (great books). Many see them as antithetical to one another. While this claim is based on very valid concerns and points, I argue that the two majors can be interdisciplinary. The term interdisciplinary may seem like a lazy term to describe things that one can’t neatly wrap with a bow, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve learned about the nature of storytelling in unique ways, through my experience in marketing classes, to reading Aristotle’s "Poetics" in my second great books seminar. I’ve discussed Hannah Arendt in my business ethics class and my political theory tutorial. I believe in a lot of ways, business and the program of liberal studies (and liberal arts in general) can supplement one another, build on one another, and create a foundation for a lifetime of discovery and learning.

 While undergraduate school is typically only four years, I feel as though I’ve lived an extra lifetime in my two majors. I have done coding and research in the Mendoza basement, presented with Student International Business Council and have gotten beverages thrown in my vicinity in Ackerman’s finance class. But I also have read poetry, participated in symposiums and have fallen in love with philosophy and political theory in the best student lounge on campus. The duality of my two majors has been the highlight of my Notre Dame experience thus far. Although I may have complained incessantly throughout my two accounting courses, or lamented a difficult oral exam, I hold both Mendoza and Arts and Letters in high regard. I wouldn’t be the student — or person — I am today without my two majors. Perhaps people would think of business and liberal studies as representing “War and Peace,” but I think “Anna Karenina” has shown me that they are much more compatible than most think.

Elizabeth Prater

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.