Widgets Magazine


What is the Point of Dwelling in the Humanities?

­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 quyenn14@stanford.edu

  • Charles

    Neat piece of writing. In case you have not considered this option, some people major in whatever they want in college and plan to go to a professional school that doesn’t really care about your major. Med school and law school are prime examples, although life can get a bit difficult if you do both pre-med requirements and stuff for your major. College is a golden opportunity where your primary goal is to educate and develop yourself; while many succumb to the pressure to race to a career, know that these 4 years will likely never come again. Spend them doing the things you may never get to do after you graduate.

  • Nimra K. Khan

    This piece sounds like it could be written by me. Have you thought about double majoring?

  • AnonymousCoward

    CompLit and Humanities are great fields to study, but in my opinion Mr. PMA is a little right… what I mean is that College is a great time to find out what you want to do for a living… somethings are great hobbies that are life long passions (for me it’s painting and photography) … but I’m an engineer… It’s important to always learn, to continue growing yourself… But it’s also supper supper important to look and help figure out what you want to do for a living. Do you want to work in academia as a CompLit professor? Great. Do you want to work as a reporter, do you want to be a writer… if so maybe other classes or another maor is better and minor in CompLit… maybe it’s the right one… good luck!

  • nerdnation_alum

    What you love to do and what you major in and what’s on your resume and how you make a living may overlap but they are not necessarily the same thing. Think more broadly about your life and not so linearly e.g. I love X –> I major in X –> I put X on my resume –> I try to get a job in X. After college you may have opportunities to do X,Y,Z etc. as a job, as a side job, as a volunteer, as a hobby. I know the article is about the importance of majoring in something you love vs. majoring in something sensible, but I’m saying this might not be the best and only way to frame the decision. The major is not the be-all and end-all decision. And if you don’t factor in some pragmatism at certain points in your life, then you might end up in a lower skill job that has nothing to do with your major and that also doesn’t pay you well enough so you can accomplish the things that are important to you.

  • Farouk Dey

    I recommend watching this lecture by Damon Horowitz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DBt9mVdgnI. I also encourage you to meet with a Career Counselor @StanfordCDC who can help connect your passion with career opportunities. Don’t let brick walls deter you from following your passion.

  • Humanities Alum

    Simple solution: (i) Major in Comp Lit (or whatever the heck you want), (ii) Go to Law School, (iii) Cop six figures in BigLaw.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Agreed, though don’t think that an MD or JD guarantee happiness — especially a JD, these days.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Oh, if only it were that easy.

  • Will

    I was a humanities major at a top East Coast school, and after a couple of years of being an English teacher I came back to school to study something more quantitative. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the humanities dilemma in higher education, and as much I never thought I’d say this when I was an undergraduate, I agree with Quyen’s career advisor.

    The simple truth is that majoring in the humanities effectively says, “I’ll come back to school to get real skills later.” That may be in the form of a JD or an MBA, or perhaps it means taking the harder road and starting from scratch in an engineering discipline, as I did. But the humanities, after all, are the privilege of the leisure class; they are rich in wisdom and define our culture, but studying them is fundamentally about enriching oneself, rather than solving problems that society faces. Thus any major in the humanities is in some sense an indulgent one, which is precisely what makes it difficult to translate it to a steady income.

    But, there is a solution. To update the advice of the 3rd century AD Rabbi Tarfon: while you probably shouldn’t major in the humanities, “you can’t abandon them, either.” So, to Quyen and others who wish to live an examined life, I say – be a lifelong student of the humanities. Read the books you love, write the poetry you long for, and compose the music you find beautiful. Don’t let the art you love stray too far from your sight. If you feel Dostoevsky speaks to you, then read him! You don’t need to have a BA in Comp Lit to let your passion shape who you are.

    So, after you’ve left school and found a job in an engineering field, the classes may have stopped for your coworkers, but they won’t have for you. You’ll keep learning and growing just as you always did, because you remained true, on your own time and your own way, to your first love. And that is the best kind of education one can get.

  • class of 2009

    What was wrong with being an English teacher?

  • Will

    Nothing was wrong with it, but it wasn’t a job that I was going to do forever. (I was teaching abroad, not TFA or something similar.) For one, the pay was just slightly above covering rent + living expenses.

  • class of 2009

    I understand, and your points are well taken. It just seems to me that the “but you won’t get a job!” hysteria surrounding the humanities really translates to “but you won’t get a job that will let you purchase a BMW and have a nice apartment in San Francisco!” People seem to presuppose that we all aspire to a certain lifestyle. I agree that there’s nothing pleasant about scraping by, but for some people, it’s a compromise they’re willing to make in order to (a) study what they love for four years and (b) integrate that passion into their working life.

    This isn’t meant as personal criticism towards you. Your original comment is very well-stated, and as I former English major myself, I can relate to some of your points.

  • Humanities Alum

    For most Stanford grads, it still IS that easy.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    I don’t buy it, not even for Stanford grads. That having been said, Stanford grads certainly have a better chance of making this happen than most.