February 15, 2016

What Do You Do With a Humanities Major?

If all our academics were to leave their jobs, our society would lose something great

It was near the end of the school year when my first grade teacher Mrs. Tarr handed out coloring sheets that also asked questions about ourselves—writing practice disguised as arts and crafts. I breezed through each question with stunning confidence, and the very last one was no different. It asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” With wobbly seven-year-old penmanship, I answered with total assurance: “a piano-playing ice-skating ballerina princess.”

And you thought the students here were ambitious.

There are many ways to mark the end of childhood, whether that’s finally turning 18 or realizing bittersweetly that this year is the 10th anniversary of High School Musical. Besides surreptitiously humming “We’re All in This Together” instead of belting it everywhere as we once did, maybe one of the most apparent and also saddest signs that we’ve grown up is realizing that we no longer believe that fantastical careers like rock star, princess, or secret agent are possible for us.

It seems as though being an academic in the humanities also falls into this category of impracticality. Because most of its fields have already been carved out by its power players, the remaining debates are so nuanced that they often feel pointless and pretentious. I recently read Rani Neutill’s Salon article “Sixteen years in academia made me an a-hole” which details her decision to quit academia in order to become a waitress. She was tired of the pretentiousness within her field: “I would grit my teeth at academic parties, listening to conversations where it was impossible for a person to talk about anything other than Hegel or T.S. Eliot. All I wanted to talk about was ‘The Good Wife’…No one seemed impressed. No one there seemed impressed by anything other than themselves.”

Neutill makes an appealing argument by saying, “waitressing had taught me more about the world than academia ever had.” Rather than the uselessness of discussing things written by dead white men, we want to believe in the value of the “real world.” Maybe that’s why Hegel is seen as a more obnoxious party topic than business or science even though the people who bring them up have similarly huge egos—we’ve internalized the notion that small victories in the humanities aren’t real accomplishments.

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir at this school—since such a high percentage of undergrads here go on to grad school—but humanities academia is essential. It allows the rest of us to work in everyday, practical jobs (and enjoy “The Good Wife”) with the knowledge that we have people who tirelessly analyze, preserve, and further an important part of culture. If all our academics were to leave their professions for more “sensible” jobs like Neutill did, the world would lose a lot of the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years and possibly miss out on future discoveries. Just like the Greek goddess Hestia who gave up her spot as one of the influential Twelve Olympians in order to keep peace and to tend to the hearth, we similarly need people here on earth to maintain the hearth of the humanities, to make sure that each small progress is noted.

Sure, some academics may be pretentious and hard to talk to, but that might just come from the very real fear that people view them as irrelevant, even though they’ve worked their entire lives to get this far. There’s a sort of bravery in choosing to be on the margins of a society obsessed with apps and applicability. I know this because I’ve realized that I’m not brave enough to choose such a path. Somewhere over the years, along with letting go of wanting to be a piano-playing ice-skating ballerina princess, I also gave up hope of becoming an English professor.

No matter how much I loved English and wanted to contribute to the field, I realized as I got older that I simply didn’t have the courage to do so. I wanted job security and to live in the real world, where I would be recognized for my work and be able to see tangible, practical results in whatever I did in the future. I was scared of being drowned out by a sea of voices all discussing “nothing.” But I know now that it’s not nothing—whatever I do in the future is in part made possible because I trust that there are people out there safeguarding the literature I cherish.

So I guess what I’m saying is, even if the rest of us “sensible” people can turn our noses up at those pursuing “pointless” careers, we still need rock stars to hold concerts that make us happy, princesses to stimulate the British economy, and academics locked in ivory towers to keep reading Hegel when no one else wants to. Their bravery might be imperfect—possibly accompanied by arrogance—but it’s still enough courage to tend a fire that people might forget helps to keep them warm, unless it disappeared.

Sophia Chen is a second-year in the College majoring in economics and political science.

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