Widgets Magazine
A major paradox
(Courtesy of Pixabay).

A major paradox

In some circles, calling someone an Science Technology and Society (STS) major is considered a playful joke. This fact is pretty messed up, not only because the major is plenty challenging and plenty useful (particularly given our technical, globalized society), but also because it’s no basis for an understanding of someone’s intellectual vitality. By conventional metrics, like job opportunities, and unconventional metrics, like happiness, STS majors are doing well enough. I cringe upon hearing any joke to the contrary and dare not make one.

Yet I myself sometimes joke about how I’d never be an English major because I want to have a job in the future. I know this brand of humor is misguided, if it can be called humor at all, and probably a defense mechanism too. After all, English has always been my favorite subject because literature and language comprise human beings, maybe more than even molecules do. English is about the lofty, overarching and messy aspects of human life — what more can a liberal arts education strive for? There’s nothing wrong with studying English, as far as academia goes. In fact, there’s a lot right with it. Sure, there are no fancy axioms, nor a rigorous scientific method to follow: You’re on your own in a great unknown… and maybe that’s why we defend ourselves from unknown-ness with derision.

Moving on from this tangent, meant to do little more than mitigate my guilt about my duplicitous love for English — I’m here to talk about a dilemma.

As an undeclared frosh, upon proffering a potential major in English or History, I sometimes get asked: What career are you pursuing? Which is the sugary version of: What are you going to do with that?

The question comes more from my Singaporean-Indian community than fellow classmates, although it arguably permeates discourse here in more implicit ways. In response, I get at once defensive and self-conscious. Doubt in my already hazy path, even an inkling, has a big effect on me. (Surely, I’ll one day outgrow this sensitivity, but for now I’m going to use this column to lament it.)

Sometimes, as a result of these moments, I envy the people who seem to have it easy. The ones who always wanted, or so they say, to be doctors, lawyers or economists. The ones who are definitely studying human biology, political science or economics. While I know the said professional tracks are receptive to a diversity of undergraduate majors, I envy the straightforwardness — the lack of a confused pause or questions about ‘what you’ll do with that’ — that comes with being an econ major at Stanford, as opposed to, say, a linguistics one.

Recently, however, I discovered there’s a catch-22 about majoring in just about anything. During an icebreaker for a class, I met a computer science major. He seemed to like coding, debugging and even Karel, which seems testament enough to the sincerity of his CS love. Yet, in introducing his major, he felt compelled to point out that he was studying CS “but not just for the money.”

At first, I was taken aback. How judgmental did he think I was? Soon enough, however, I realized that, for a hot second, I had vaguely categorized him in pursuit of some sort of Silicon Valley fortune, unless he convinced me otherwise. Needless to say, this should not have been my default setting: Why should anyone have to vindicate the sincerity of their love for a major just because it’s archetypically lucrative?

I realized then that if someone considers a major a valid basis of judgment, they will form a judgment — even a skeptical judgment — regardless of the major in question. Under the assumption that we internalize some external gaze, then we too will always encounter self-consciousness about our major. Creative writing majors might worry about their lack of STEM pragmatism, while mechanical engineers might envy the intrepid spirit of a humanities student.

The only way out of this lose-lose scenario, this trap, is to realize the triviality of it all. What you study is not who you are, at least not entirely — at least not in every way that counts.


Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.