You're Majoring in What?

If you are or were a liberal arts major, you know the drill that defined your social life from age 18-22.  Choose a public situation, whether it’s a party with friends, standing around after church, getting to know random strangers that you’ll never see again, or meeting your girlfriend’s parents (the previous two might be one and the same), and after a few hello’s and handshakes, out will come the classic question: so, what are you studying?

Here. We. Go. Again.  You take a deep breath, pausing to enjoy this brief calm before the impending career counseling storm begins.  

“Ummm…yeah, I am majoring in communications” (or literature or philosophy or anthropology; choose your flavor), you slowly put forward.

“Really?!?,” comes the response, like you had just told them that you were preparing to lead a local nudist colony on its first expedition to the North Pole.  “That’s interesting, Luke,” they respond with raised eyebrows. “But what are you going to do with that?”

It’s tempting to say something sarcastic at this point, like “I’m going to deliver newspapers until they have to pry the last one out of my cold, clammy hand,” but depending on the cultural sensitivity of your fellow conversants, they may have already beat you to the “Don’t worry, you can always flip burgers” punch. You add a few polite smiles to the group’s chuckling, only because you might need these people someday for a Kickstarter campaign.

From here, you may try to mount a fledgling defense of your major, but since you can’t pinpoint an exact cubicle in a suburban office complex that you’ll occupy upon graduation, your arguments have the same persuasiveness as a homeless guy ranting about the federal agents following him.  Your audience doesn’t want possibilities, they want paychecks, and to them, it doesn’t look like you’ll have one anytime soon.  

After a few of these conversations, you realize that attempting to persuade the group of the merits of a liberal arts education isn’t only hopeless, but doubly destructive, since you gave the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) evangelist, that every group has at least one of, time to prepare his remarks.  “Well Luke,” he proudly declares, “That is why when I went to college I knew that I needed to study something practical that would lead to a real job.  I majored in mechanical engineering and everything’s turned out really well for me.” That’s STEM code for living in a beige split-level house in the suburbs as he and his wife take turns piloting their Honda Odyssey to piano lessons and soccer practice. “In fact,” he continues, “I was just reading in the Wall Street Journal about an art history major who graduated with $100,000 of debt, and she can’t find a job anywhere!”  The group politely shudders as each person gives you a sad, sympathetic look, like you had just given up your seat on the last Titanic lifeboat to go adjust a slightly askew lounge chair on the far side of the deck.

At this point, you know the battle is lost and begin to look for the eject button.  So you pull out a classic STEM bait statement like, “Hey, did you see that Apple released this new plutonium-based processor that triples the gigahertz speed on the decaquartz module while using 13% less power?” Keep in mind, the more details you can make up the longer it will keep them occupied. As the carrot is taken and the conversation turns, you are filled with a hopeful thought, knowing that if you do ever tango with your own iceberg, the federal government will no longer be able to collect on your student loans.  Maybe liberal arts majors get the last laugh after all.

The above is a slightly stylized version of a conversation that I’ve had many times.  Well-meaning people either warn or speak derogatively about a son, daughter, future son-in-law, or a young person that they know who is studying the humanities.  The basic presupposition for these conversations is that in the 21st century it is career suicide to major in a “thinking” field and not a “doing” one.  Young people are directed towards majors and careers where they will learn a tangible white collar skill, like accounting or computer programming, and away from the abstract humanities majors that usually do not have a directly-resultant job waiting for them.  Societally, we’re told this is a good thing because we need to stay ahead of the Chinese or Russians or whomever else Jean Claude Van Damme is fighting at the moment. And individually, we’re led to believe that this is the path that will lead us to a secure and comfortable financial future.

While the previous paragraph provides enough material for endless debates on our society’s philosophy of life and education, I want to direct our attention towards exploring who, and how, liberal arts majors can be utilized by young people to equip them for thriving and financially-sound careers. I deeply believe in studying the humanities and think that for those with the right gifts, it is the best intellectual training for life. But there are troubling trends among liberal arts majors, with either the wrong people majoring in these subjects, or the right people majoring in them with the wrong perspective. There are potential pitfalls of majoring in the humanities, and you have to watch for them carefully to make sure that you’re not another student debt statistic.
Over the coming months I hope to work through some of the common ideas and misconceptions around majoring in the humanities. My goal is to explore and expand your current conceptions of what study and work could look like, whether you are naturally more sympathetic to STEM or the liberal arts. I want to help every person use their natural abilities to create personal, social, and economic value. The world is such a rich fabric of experiences and opportunities, and because of that, it works best when every person utilizes their unique blend of gifts and talents.