Eli Burnstein


Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), 2009

There’s an openness to what [a liberal arts education] gives you. You become agile, a quick learner… in a world that’s constantly shifting, that’s a virtue.

For humorist and writer Eli Burnstein, the value in his King’s experience lies not just in the material he studied, but in the ways he learned to express himself. As Eli prepares for the launch of his debut book, he reflects on how those abilities have prepared him for the ever-shifting creative industry.

Eli supports himself as a freelance writer and editor — Wealthsimple is a major client — while his humour bylines can be found in The New Yorker, McSweeneys, and Weekly Humorist. This spring, his first book, Dictionary of Fine Distinctions, will be published with Union Square & Co.

“One person’s philosophy is another person’s bathroom reading,” says Eli. “I’m hoping my book entertains and delights while also getting people to think.”

But before he was a published author, Eli was a student in the King’s Foundation Year Program (FYP), a year-long interdisciplinary program that provides students with a deep dive into critical intellectual developments throughout history in philosophy, literature, drama, and the natural and social sciences. The program appealed to Eli chiefly because of its reliance on primary texts.

“The idea of getting it straight from the horse’s mouth really appealed to me,” he says. “Something a lot of textbooks get wrong, I think, is that it’s not just about what there is to say, but how one goes about saying it. The so-called great books are great partly because of the style in which they were written. That style, that voice, contains a lot of information beyond the so-called content… reading Nietzsche beats reading about Nietzsche, in other words.”

After that whirlwind year, Eli majored in Contemporary Studies, the perfect complement to FYP, and one that continued honing his critical thinking and communication skills. Having moved between editorial and copywriting roles since graduating from King’s in 2009—pit-stopping to get a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Penn State University along the way—he’s been grateful for both the depth and the breadth of his liberal arts education, something he says has benefited him in almost every office he’s worked at.

“King’s cultivated my ability to wield ideas, not just in my head, but in speech and on paper. You’d be surprised at how much managers value employees who just get it. And get it with a high degree of precision.”

These skills are particularly helpful, he says, in light of a changing world. “There’s an openness to what [a liberal arts education] gives you. You become agile, a quick learner… in a world that’s constantly shifting, that’s a virtue.”

Key to FYP’s quality, Eli argues, is the way it’s structured day to day. “You read this incredible text, you attend a great lecture on it, you actively discuss it in a seminar, and then you go write a paper on it. Those four things on a constant loop, they just get you thinking and working at a really high calibre,” he says. “If you’re interested in philosophy and literature, I can’t think of a better program in Canada. It will throw you into the deep end and teach you how to swim.”

As Eli prepares for the launch of his book, he’s looking forward to new opportunities to put his blend of creative and analytical skills to work — even in ways he’s not aware of yet.

“To say somebody grew up their whole life wanting to be one very specific thing, I think that can be helpful looking backwards, but looking forwards, you’re still writing your story.”