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Off the beat: Confessions of a humanities major

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MAY 06, 2013

When I first told my family that I would be double majoring in rhetoric and French, I faced confused and baffled responses. My parents expected me to follow my childhood passion for mathematics while in college, but sometimes, things just don’t work out. Throughout my academic career, I have been constantly told to consider my future as if humanities majors like me slip off the face of Earth after graduation. So what exactly is a humanities major, and why do they exist if there is such a constant fear of failure?

Many majors are put into classification schemes that limit the options of academic interest. There is often a dichotomy between the average humanities major and the average science major. Yes, clear distinctions tend to help with categorization, but defining majors by either being in the humanities or sciences is fallacious.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “humanity,” in reference to the academic field, to be “the branch of learning concerned with human culture.” But shouldn’t this definition apply to all majors, then? In chemistry and physics, aren’t we simply studying the effects of humanity and how to better our species and interact with other species? I think that the distinction between humanities and sciences is a bit misleading because it assumes the field of science does not deal with humanity, when in reality science and certain fields of study are all about humanity.

The deciding factor in the debate of whether or not to major in humanities is money. People are generally steered away from majoring in the nonsciences with the justification being that humanities majors do not make as much money as science majors do. But is money really the true matter at hand? I think that worrying about a future salary while still in college is stressful, not to mention extremely petty. Money talk simply fuels the capitalist society in which we live. Before prematurely taking money into account, I find it valuable to reexamine why one pursues an academic career.

Do we go to school to get a better salary or to gain insight as to how we fit into society? Although the former is true, the latter exemplifies the bottom line: Society has normalized higher education. In high school, it feels like the next logical step to reaching adulthood is to enroll in a college of some sort. If we are expected to attain higher education, then we should have the freedom and support to explore different academic fields and focus on whichever pertains to us most. And I also think that it is healthy to leave the postcollege worrying until postcollege, regardless of finances and jobs.

In comparison to a science major, the average humanities major is faced with high unemployment rates and lower average wages. Although this is definitely something to take into account, having motivation will play a stronger role in changing such statistics. Our generation is typically pressured to go into supposedly successful fields such as medicine, law and scientific research — perhaps this will change in five to 10 years, because there might be an abundance of doctors and lawyers vying for the same jobs. Be motivated, and have a passion for what you study and enjoy doing, for young passion and eagerness will help you in the future.

So do all humanities majors go on to become professors in their fields? Definitely not. But many undergraduates in the nonsciences tend to enjoy their field so much that they seek a doctorate in the subject. People have admitted to me their fear of an overpopulation of people with doctorates in the humanities and not enough demand for them. While graduate school is a viable option for students in the humanities, don’t feel limited to a postsecondary education. But if you do find yourself seeking to continue onto a graduate program, the investment can be justified if you have an immense passion for the subject. If you want to go to graduate school for the humanities, do so if the fiery passion is there.

Am I worried about my future? Yes, but who isn’t? Before worrying about post-college, worry about college. I am trying to make the most of my time here at UC Berkeley and enjoy the humanities path. By exploring my academic interests in interdisciplinary fields, I have had the opportunity to further my knowledge of how society functions, and that is something I find invaluable to all “humanities” majors.

We, as college students, have the privilege to explore and choose our futures. Don’t feel obligated to classify yourself in the humanities or sciences binary. Challenge normative and capitalist ideals of the future — your future.

Contact Matthew Kirschenbaum at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @mpkirschenbaum.

MAY 05, 2013