Among the many lessons I have learned in my years of secondary and higher education, the most important is this: Study what you love and let that guide the way for your future. It has been ingrained in me by friends, family and mentors that if you want to live the happiest life possible, it all starts with your college years, specifically what you study.
I have been lucky enough to have parents who are supportive of the choices I have made for my major and professional pursuits. Even though they have created a nurturing environment for my educational pursuits, however, some conversations we share can fall short of cultivating a young mind. The question I believe plagues many of us, though, is a stress-inducing and relatively big one: “what do you plan on doing with that degree?” The frequent encouragement to attend graduate school, find yourself in a certain career or change your major entirely for professional reasons tends to make already-anxious college students further extended with various and oftentimes unnecessary requirements. Attending university has become less about “studying what you love,” and more about “studying what will get you the best job”.
Much of this dialogue is rooted in the invisible separation between what many consider “useless” and “useful” majors. The common definition of a “useless” major is a field of study that is not considered profitable and one that will not result in a high-paying job after graduation. Students are urged to pursue degrees that will allow them to pay off their student loans and get the best liveable wage, a perspective that bars young people from studying what interests them most. Among those most hounded for their degree choices are those in the humanities departments, which includes everything from English to Philosophy to Women’s and Gender Studies. These students are told by advisers and older relatives to “think about the future” and to choose majors that will allow them to gain what is socially deemed “meaningful” employment. The fact is this: there is no such thing as a “useless” major, and all students should be economically and socially encouraged to study what they are most passionate about.
Students should not have to attend university with the goal of getting the most financial returns possible after graduation. College is largely about finding your personal passions, and students within certain fields should not face limitations in the future for studying majors that are oftentimes less respected than others. Different students have different goals, and many use their time at university as a stepping stone to pursue a career that may be lower-paying but will bring them a higher degree of individual fulfillment. Still, some data show that graduates with degrees in the humanities tend to catch up to their STEM peers in the long run. Telling students that only certain areas of study are worth their time has the potential to damage their self-esteem and make them feel as though their passions are worth little to other people and broader society. College is about self-discovery in more ways than one, and this time in the lives of young people depends on the confidence they gain via passion projects and external encouragement to follow their dreams.
Disapproving parents and the tricky job market are not the only barriers to studying what you love: Socioeconomic status prevents many students from majoring in what are often considered to be “useless” majors. Low-income students are encouraged to study “useful” fields such as engineering or medicine, while wealthier students do not necessarily have to focus on being “employable” after graduation and are able to take whichever classes they please. The stress of finding a job and steady income after graduation forces students without financial privilege, especially those at expensive institutions such as our own, to major in what will make them the most money, not what will make them the happiest.
Students of the humanities should not be targeted as “wasting their time and money” during their years of higher education. There is no such thing as a “useless” major, and there is not one specific major that means more than others. Every student should be encouraged to study what they desire, not what their parents most desire or what they believe the job market requires of them. The path to breaking down this untrue belief in “useless” majors does not end at the conversations we have with our mentors, it also requires intrinsic changes to the American system of higher education. College students that come from low-income families should not be limited to certain majors while higher-income students who have money to fall back on can study whatever they’d like.
Institutions of higher education need to reform their priorities, and it must begin with making all majors accessible and acceptable for all students. This means lowering the cost of higher education, making the student loan debt less of a burden and starting a conversation about the importance of any and all majors. There must be a “second Renaissance” of sorts, wherein we start a conversation that emphasizes the importance of studying the humanities. Students of the humanities bring a critical eye to the workforce, with an ability to thoughtfully contribute to conversations, analyze information and provide substantive input to professional matters. The humanities are not useless, but are actually immensely valuable to broader society, and bestow a plethora of wisdom on the modern workplace.
All of this is not to say that all students should pursue a humanities-focused education, but it shows that all majors have the ability to provide income and that all majors are meaningful in their own way, from profit to personal happiness. All students should be able to study what they desire, and should not be limited by conversations of “usefulness” and future profit. A degree is only truly meaningful if students are most effectively able to learn about themselves and a topic that makes them content.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.