Have Faith in Humanities

Why a major in English is far from worthless

What is more useless than figuring out what James Joyce means in writing “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronn…”?

For most, that’s what first comes to mind when thinking of English majors: idealistic youth, content to spend their days puzzling over meanings and interpretations. It doesn’t stop there; why should I care about the Latina experience in Guatemala, or the unique intersections of sexuality and crime in film, or a whole host of seemingly-arbitrary subjects? Why does this help me advance my career and achieve my goals?

And I’ll say this, as a prospective major in English (the art of interpreting 26 symbols over and over again)- in most cases, there is no specific reason to care; I will probably never encounter a use for the knowledge that forty thousand years ago, somebody made an anthropomorphic statue of a woman in Mesopotamia. As a society, we define useless as “unable to be directly applied upon something material”.

In a sense, majoring in the humanities are generally useless.

And wholly essential. Not for use, in the conventional sense- I will never use Shakespearean tragedies the same way I might use equations to calculate my taxes. But there’s an assumption here–that everything important and good must be obviously “useful” or “usable”.

One of the most influential ancient societies, Greece, was also rather atypical- they considered being “useless” one of the most honorable positions in society. Those who produced, like farmers, merchants, or artisans, were useful, but those who thought- the philosophers and artists- were revered. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and many others, would hardly be considered successful in today’s society. There was, and still is, something inherently valuable about thinkers–those who could separate ideas from reality and twist them around in the air like strands of mist, observing how they collide and form the reality we know.

There is a simple reason why we shouldn’t hold education to the standard of being “useful”: that’s not the same standard to which we hold anything else in our lives which we consider important. I don’t (and hopefully you don’t) make sure all my friends are useful to me, although that’s often a benefit that comes with being friends with smart people. We don’t expect there to be inherent utility in listening to a new pop song, or in throwing a frisbee; hearing the new Taylor Swift single on repeat definitely didn’t advance my career in the slightest.

And yet we do those–we play videogames, or laugh and cry with friends, or spend hours doing things that are, in essence, useless. Maybe the problem isn’t an appreciation of life; maybe the problem is in a system of values that deems happiness and beauty, with no ultimate goal, to be “useless”.

It is through literature that we learn how to feel; it is through art that we discover the potential for mixing ideas and materiality. The current constructions of what “happiness” is, or the difference between a “hero” and a “criminal”, or what it means to be “successful”–each one of those, amongst thousands more, is framed by centuries of consolidating the greatest human thinkers. There is no reason that everyone should major or seriously consider a career in the humanities, but to be dismissive of one would be arrogant.

There is a common, misguided argument against a humanities major: the notion that a mediocre STEM major earns more than a humanities major. In addition to being an intrinsically beneficial field, humanities majors do have extremely high earning potential. There are three major problems with this assumption, purely on financial grounds.

From a pure income standpoint, the evidence shows that the average humanities major catches up in lifetime income with most other majors. While STEM majors do have higher starting salaries, humanities majors have more potential growth over the course of their careers. Second, the rise of technology is significantly reducing the utility of a STEM major. Most education outside the humanities is gained through a one-sided format, where the student gains information from the professor- the perfect format to learn online. However, most of the value of a humanities major comes from actual discussions and critical thinking, which are much harder to learn outside of a university. This same logic has been noted by major companies; they are starting to view humanities majors as valued contributors who often serve as the leaders and creative minds behind the largest companies in the world.

Finally, the data is skewed because it’s easier to be a lazy humanities major. That number severely deflates the average; however, assuming the person choosing between majors is hardworking, the humanities are the core behind fields such as law, business, and management, which are definitely some of the highest paying careers out there. Put simply, it’s much easier to be mediocrely good as a non-humanities major, but often the top achievers in the humanities have much more potential and influence.

And so, in the end, it’s a question I think every college student should face: do you value your humanity?

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Yuhang Zhang
Yuhang Zhang ('21) writes for the Opinion Section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He plans to major in Law, History and Society and Human Organization and Development, with a minor in Business. Yuhang often spreads his controversial opinions across campus publications, and enjoys setting up calendars for weeks in advance. He finds great joy inside attending random events, and often finds himself binge-reading Buzzfeed in the library.