In the spring of my senior year of high school, I gave my father the silent treatment for two days. He deserved it—he had refused to discuss what I should major in. He argued that it was too early to do so, that the point of Columbia was to stumble upon something worth studying. After some gentle prodding from my mother, he relented, apologized, and confirmed my decision to major in political science.
On Monday, I finally and officially declared my major—Russian literature and culture.
I could go through the series of happy accidents that led me to the Slavic department. Indeed, I’ve often done so in response to the most frequent reaction to my major: why? (Followed closely by, “Oh … Are you Russian?” The answer is no. No I am not.) Why am I studying Russian literature? What am I going to do with that?
Sometimes I try to explain. I detail the classes that have made me believe that this is the right choice. Sometimes I shrug and say that I really like Chekhov. Sometimes I say that my life’s ambition is to live in a cardboard box.
If this piece were dedicated to defending my major, I could go on about how I cried on the last day of my Eastern European history class, the last day of my Chekhov class, and the first day of my 20th century Russian literature class (the beauty!). Perhaps I’d mention that I’ve never felt so impressed with my own lack of understanding as I have felt over the course of this semester, reading and discussing Soviet-era literature. Or that I never leave my Russian language class without having laughed, or how touched and impressed I was that my Russian teacher took the time to notice and address the fact that I seem busier this semester. I’d probably conclude with the idea that I feel not only more cognizant of my own ignorance, but also of the depth of humanity, and of an individual’s capacity for compassion.
But this piece is not about the Slavic department. I could talk or write for hours about why I’m studying Russian literature. But the more pressing concern is the general “why?” Why do we—why should we—declare the majors that we do?
I am often criticized for the lack of utility of my major. This point is both entirely true and completely unfair.
On the one hand, with a few particularly viable career options excepted (professor, international woman of mystery, cardboard box resident extraordinaire), there is a very real chance that I will not “use” everything I’ve learned after I graduate. I’m hardly alone in this, though. Really, what are any of us going to do with anything that we study? Many of the “practical” political science majors who have questioned my choice and intentions may find themselves hard-pressed to recall the steps by which human nature degenerates into corrupt society according to Rousseau’s “Second Discourse” five years from now. On this count, however, I’ll admit that my interrogators are right.
On the other hand, I could not possibly pick a more useful major. Yes, I believe that I will have spent my time well in college if the only thing I learn is how much there still is to learn, which is what I personally find so rewarding about examining Russian literature and culture. But the true source of the identified utility is this: I love what I study. And I’d like to believe that whatever we love, whatever we’re passionate about, we’re good at. Genuine interest is a powerful tool, be it in developing a breadth of knowledge or honing the analytical skills that will serve Columbia students wherever we go.
This is not meant to laude minority majors. On the terms of my own argument, studying a quirky major for the sake of quirk is as nonsensical as studying something because it’s what one is “supposed” to study. People who love political science should study political science. People who love math (more power to you) should study math. We should do what we’re good at. And, ultimately, I think that if we’re lucky enough to find something we love doing for a little while, we should do it.
Thus, as much as it pains me to admit it, my dad was right. But I’m still not going to apologize about the silent treatment.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in Russian literature and culture. She is the Spectator Editorial Page Editor.