A professor at Stanford recently advised me to stay away from majoring in Comparative Literature because it would not lead to any lucrative jobs outside of academia. Being the pro-humanities advocate that I am, I was not only shocked and infuriated by this inane remark but also even more disillusioned about elite higher education today.
In this technology- and cash-driven modern age, I understand why a lot of my peers are aspiring computer scientists, engineers or economists. Getting a tangible, “technical” major seems like the “sensible” thing to do, and yet I have struggled to deal with this reality.
I love literature. Wresting with great texts, getting my heart broken by a Dostoevsky line or sighing my afternoon away with Du Fu are a few things I would like to do on a daily basis.
The problem is that those activities neither translate directly into a six-figure occupation nor spell out ‘success’ the way most people like to define it. I am terrified of being that Stanford graduate who spends years crafting some lofty novel just to realize that maybe getting a job as an accountant is more realistic.
So I recently went to my meeting with my so-called “pre-major advisor” (PMA), this emotional baggage sagging on my back, hoping he would at least have wise things to say to alleviate my stress about finding a major.
To leave his name undisclosed, I will start calling this person Mr. PMA. Sitting in his chair with a magnanimous smile, Mr. PMA told me first thing that Comparative Literature would sound too academic on my CV.
Defending my hurt ego, I mumbled something about how, despite being a theoretical field, CompLit could connect me with other disciplines. Life is really about being sensitive to those myriad perspectives anyway, isn’t it? Well no, Mr. PMA asserted. He had been “a hirer” before, and CompLit definitely did not sound great on resumes.
He then went on to tell me that he was an English major in college, but soon realized that writing novels was not a financially sound idea. Instead, he started to train for journalism. Today, he writes for foreign affairs magazines and actually has managed to fulfill his college dream by publishing on the side.
This professional journalist and writer basically told me that I should not major in something that I love because it was not job-friendly.
Needless to say, I walked out of Mr. PMA’s office with a heart heavier and more burdened than the moment I walked in. Were my parents right after all? Should I major in something simply because it is instrumental in getting a good job?
The point, as Adam Gopnik said in his recent talk at Stanford, is that we choose the humanities because ultimately we are human. Human beings will never stop making and discussing art, whether it is an exhilarating Games of Thrones episode or a dense Proust volume in French. It is an urge, a fervent calling.
Therefore, if some people decide to brand themselves with a humanities major badge just to get an edge in the job recruitment process later, I would argue that they would soon regret this inauthentic attitude.
The same goes for engineering. The number of undergraduate majors in engineering is said to have tripled in the last five years. The naïve, hopeful part of me would like to believe that all Stanford graduating engineers majored in Computer Science, Management Science & Engineering and other great engineering disciplines because they enjoyed studying it and want to change the world with their expertise. The reality is that a lot of my friends feel pressured to major in engineering because of external influences.
Of course, I am only speaking from my limited conversations with friends on campus, but I know for a fact that a few of my anguished friends who actually are secret poets, painters, beatboxers, musicians and multimedia artists end up giving up on the “useless” humanities and enrolling in large engineering lectures where they fall asleep or skip altogether.
As for myself, a firmly undecided major who loves art and literature, I still have no answer on what I want to do. I know one thing for sure: I cannot blindly follow my PMA’s highly pragmatic and spiritually empty advice to compete for prestigious internships in the hope of attaining some well-paid job, even when it contains little meaning or intrinsic value.
I guess it all boils down to the fact that, at some moment fifty years from now, when I am old, wise, and about to die, I do not want to tell my grandchildren to check out my super resume. I want to leave behind something meaningful.
Contact Quyen Nguyen ’16 at email@example.com