I burst out laughing when I read the headline on Madison Stephens’ Sept. 12 op-ed: “Studying English at Emory a Worthwhile Endeavor.” It sounds like an Onion headline. Does this actually need to be said?
Apparently, yes. Stephens writes a sobering account of the experiences of an English major surrounded by pre-med and pre-business students: “If I complain about being tired after a long night of studying, I receive dubious looks accompanied by the snarky, ‘It’s not like you have to study. You’re an English major.’ ’’
I hear similar stories from my linguistics students. They think they “should give the BBA a chance” even if they have no interest in business or econ. They worry about wasting their education by choosing a major they might not “use” — where “use your major” means “get a job that sounds kind of like your major.” Occasionally these pressures are being exerted by parents, but much more commonly they’re self- or peer-inflicted.
My heart goes out to these students. I had many of the same doubts as an undergrad. I took the LSAT; I researched law schools; if my college had had a BBA program, I probably would have signed right up. I doubt I would have enjoyed being a business analyst or lawyer, but at the time those options seemed so safe. It can be scary not to have the answers when everyone around you seems so purposeful.
Here are some things I wish someone had told me then:
First, no particular course of study can guarantee job security, job satisfaction or a smooth path through life. One thing a pre-professional track does guarantee: a few extra years of having other people decide what classes you should take. That’s not a good reason to choose one.
Second, there are many, many ways to be of service to others. No matter how you contribute, you’ll do a better job of it if you’re enjoying yourself than if you’re not.
And third, “How will I use this?” is an excellent question to ask if you’re thinking about buying a new iPad or SUV. It’s a terrible question to ask if you’re thinking about visiting an art museum, spending an afternoon with friends, or choosing a major. When we ask “How will I use this?” about an academic discipline — especially if we’ve defined use in a job-oriented way — we impose materialistic values on the domain of human creative and intellectual activity. Let’s not do that, OK?
So what questions can you ask instead? Stephens’ “What will I enjoy?” is a great one. I’d add: “What can I learn to enjoy?”
College may be the only period of your life when you have the dedicated time, space and community of mentors to help you explore new fields. Take your time. Try things out, in different contexts and from various angles, until you find a way to respond to them. You don’t have to keep accepting that kneejerk, complacent, “I’m-not-a-math/language/science-person” pigeonholing nonsense that gets pushed on us since childhood.
Think of this as expanding your intellectual appetite. The process is sometimes uncomfortable, but also deeply rewarding. You’ll be less afraid of difference and change, more likely to see people’s lives as interesting stories and less likely to experience switchbacks as disasters. The smooth path may lose some of its appeal. Like Stephens, you’ll be more willing to sweat and suffer doing work that nobody else is making you do. This kind of work helps you figure out what your own values are, which in turn makes you less susceptible to manipulation, stagnation and other regrettable situations later on. It may in fact turn out to be the most important work of all.
Marjorie Pak is the director of undergraduate studies and senior lecturer in linguistics.