For many people who grow up with a relatively comfortable childhood, college can be the first time we’re faced with the beginnings of life’s enduring questions. It starts: What should I major in? Followed quickly by: What should I do with the rest of my life? Always concluding with: What is happiness, and how can I achieve it?
Friends and family warn against the mistakes of their own lives, impressing upon us their opinions of what we should and shouldn’t do. It’s overwhelming—all of the questions and the answers, not knowing what matches with what. It’s incredibly difficult and equally rare for us to be wholly certain of what the right answer is, or if there even is such a thing as a right answer. I’ve heard people plead to the effect of, “Be practical, Sanjay. Get a finance degree and a job in investment banking. Make money, buy a nice house, achieve comfort, and you’ll never have a worry in your life.” Everyone smiles awkwardly, quietly thinking to themselves that a Bachelor of Arts in history dooms me to the inevitability of depression and failure.
It’s tough, because I’ve always loved history and literature. I am drawn to stories—how they define the human experience. Sure, I have also been enamored with my fair share of math and science courses. However, my love for physics and calculus is dwarfed by my passion for the humanities. I’ve felt this way for the majority of my life, and I probably will for the rest of it. Thus, once I was admitted to college in the spring of 2016, I told my parents I wanted to study history and literature. I was caught off guard when I was told that I would have to have one practical major and one impractical major—I would study history and economics.
A few of my friends—computer science majors with relatively absolute standards regarding what constitutes success—argue with me constantly; they contend that STEM is the future and that pursuing anything else just isn’t practical. They’re right. The world is drastically changing in favor of jobs that require technological and computational knowledge. If I wanted a high-paying job and fiscal stability, I could see how a liberal arts degree may make that hard. However, there is one problem with their argument: I want to be a historian.
Practicality, simply put, concerns the means necessary to achieve a goal somewhere off in the future. Colleges like Columbia—and most of modern society—are wrapped up with the concerns of the physical world, and thus have a tendency to see the end goal as material wealth. This is perpetuated by career planning offices that push graduates toward higher-paying jobs in order to bolster statistics, as well as a consumer society that advertises drinking the most expensive bourbon as if it were the most enduring form of happiness. It can seem as if the whole world pieces together this clear, causal relationship that extreme wealth begets fulfillment, when, after a point, reality shows that no definite relationship exists between the two.
There is a reason that different philosophies suit different people; not everyone finds fulfillment in the same end goal. This individuality stems directly from the inherent subjectivity of mankind, and is evidenced appropriately by all of the dead white men fighting over how to live well in Contemporary Civilization. To project any one goal as absolute, and as objectively right, while dissuading others from what makes them happy is not only categorically ignorant, but is detrimental to society. It breaks down the intellectual diversity that fuels the fluidity of any truly free civilization.
History, philosophy, English, the classics—on modern college campuses, the humanities are often seen as worthless and not suited toward contemporary definitions of success and fulfillment. While it should not be implied that everyone who chooses STEM or finance does so out of their material greed, there can exist a culture in those fields which prompts students to look down upon those who do not fit their reinforced, subjective vision of success. Moreover, it is not as if those who choose to study the humanities will never make any money in their lives. History majors can go on to become CEOs, English majors can go on to write the next great American novel, and philosophy majors can go on to become partners at prestigious law firms.
Students who choose to pursue the humanities don’t do so because they lack the ability to comprehend that money makes the world go round, or because they blindly cling to dying fields. Rather, in a very Aristotelian way, they choose to pursue what, for them, satisfies the summum bonum: happiness.
Sanjay Paul is a current sophomore in Columbia College studying US history. He looks forward to wasting his parents’ money on a useless degree for another three years. Noise Pollution runs every alternate Wednesday. Sanjay can be reached at email@example.com.
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