Are We Scared of the Humanities?
As the new semester begins, allow me to offer a word of advice for anyone wishing to ask a humanities major what they plan to do with their degree: give them the space to answer. What I mean by this is that when you are speaking with someone who is majoring in a subject such as English or history, please don’t fill in their pauses with your own preconceived notions of what is possible. Well-meaning people will sometimes offer me a lifeline when I falter after saying I’m an English major: “Oh, so you want to teach?” I don’t want to teach. In fact, I know exactly what I want to do, but now I’m afraid to say so.
The humanities are in a state of decline — this is something we all know, and though this has been true for the past decade, we are talking about it a lot more now. But this is not an article about the importance of studying the humanities, or how crucial art is for the development of young thinkers like us. This is an article about how college should ideally be, and how “career” is often a destination that can distract us from our present interests and passions. I’m not unaware of the importance of planning for your future, for allowing yourself career opportunities and the security that comes along with such achievements. But I think we lose something special when we focus solely on that one aim. This is our one chance to learn whatever it is we want, to fly closer to the flames that draw us in, regardless of how risky it may seem.
It’s a scary thing to admit, as an English major, that I want to write professionally in the future. When people ask me why I chose writing specifically, I joke that if I had been as naturally predisposed to any other field, I would have chosen it instead. I’ve gotten used to the blank stares and the slow, tight smiles that follow my confession, but I haven’t gotten used to the fear that builds within me whenever I realize that any creative practice is indefinite. “Does it bother you that a robot could do your job now?” someone asked me recently. As a first-generation American, this fear intensifies when I remember the significance of my station as a college student. But that’s the thing — I’m a college student. My parents, who have impressed upon me the equal importance of career and passion for my entire life, want me to study what I love. And they want me to find a way to make money doing what I love. I’ve been lucky, I won’t deny it — the thing I am best at is the only thing I have ever wanted to do.
But for those who find themselves hesitating, those who whisper in the doorway of a writing class that they might love it, please nurture those feelings. If you’ve found yourself fascinated by the research you’re doing for a history paper, then lean into that fascination. Right now, we are able to be uninhibited in our devotions; we are able to study the things that excite us without pressing responsibilities weighing us down. The very notion of Torah Umadda suggests that we make ourselves into well-rounded individuals, Jews who embrace the physical and secular world for its meaningful offerings, the things that will broaden our minds and souls. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “The American Scholar,” “is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof?” To further Emerson’s point, this institution is replete with opportunities for our intellectual advancement, but whether we retreat from them out of fear or pursue them with bravery is a choice that belongs to each of us.
The finish line will always be there. It is fixed, unmoving, but the race is all about motion and change. In a world that associates success with money and prestige, the finish line seems to be all that matters. We are told to keep running, to move faster, to chase and pursue the end until we are left depleted. Perhaps it is true that there will be no “Walden” produced in this era, and that the cubicles of skyscrapers will fill as the writing desks empty. But this moment is fleeting, and once that coveted office job is yours, an investment in your passions will be almost impossible to maintain. So for now, if you can, follow that little voice in your head that wants to learn something different. Wonderful things can happen when you do.
Photo Caption: “Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay ‘The American Scholar,’ ‘is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof?’”
Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash