November 30, 2017

SONG | Humanities Majors Aren’t Homeless Wannabes

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Penniless. Paint-spattered jeans. Living under a cardboard canopy with peace sign stickers peeling by the edges and a battered typewriter bought off the streets.

This is what flashes through the mind of someone who asks me, “Why are you an English major?”

Yes, this is the exaggerated version of a starving artist — the kind of writer with the wild hair and the collection of quills made of feathers plucked from pigeons on the streets. But I swear that’s what my parents and friends picture in that panic-throttling moment when I say, “I want a degree in the humanities.” Their eyes go blank and nervous laughter trickles into the suddenly-awkward air, often accompanied by holding onto some sort of railing for emotional support.

Then the questions ensue: “You know it’s a dying industry right?” “How are you going to make money?” “Can I offer you this STEM pamphlet?”

From the day we started making crayon drawings of our “dream job,” we were encouraged to be doctors, engineers, mathematicians. So while the other kids sketched scientists and accountants, the playwrights and poets were quietly told to pick another color from the crayon box.

To which I answer, often with a raised eyebrow and a book in my hands, you might think it’s dying out, but it’s the only thing that makes me feel alive. And no, I don’t want your STEM pamphlet. Yes, the one with the stock photo of a model with overly-fashionable lab goggles.

Because when society pictures a degree in the humanities, they think of old philosophers smoking gold-plated cigars, rambling on about something they found in a leather journal in their basement. The art of humanities is antiquated, everyone says — it belongs to the past century, and STEM belongs to this one. It’s milk gone sour, week-old leftovers, that handbag that’s so off-season your weird aunt doesn’t even want it.

But the formulas and the codes and the bacteria — it’s not for everyone. For some of us, we love the crinkle of a turning fresh page in a book. We love looking at the hues of orange and yellow and blue in a painting and discovering how it shaped an entire decade. And that’s not exactly an invalid fascination just because it doesn’t involve bacteria.
To quote the all-knowing Robin Williams of Dead Poets Society: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

What we create may not be tangible objects we can hold in our hands. They might not earn us six-digit salaries with a picket-fence house in sunny Silicon Valley. But we sit alongside Shakespeare and Van Gogh because that’s the only act of passion we believe in. It’s our way of saying it doesn’t take a lab or a formula to change the course of life — when we put words on a page and create poems from thin air, that is how we choose to speak, salary or not. “Human” is ingrained in the word humanities; if we give up on the only thing that makes us “human,” then what will we have left?

So to those who say my choice to be an English major to was “to glorify the idea of a starving artist,” my passion is not an act of rebellion. It’s not trying to be a con-hippie, to defy my parents’ wishes and live in a cardboard box. It’s an act of steadfastly scribbling in journals because it’s the only thing that can keep me up at night from its thrill. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say we didn’t “ruin our lives” when we chose sociology or architecture or comparative literature; we only started living when we did.

So call me an out-of-date grandma, a disappointment to millennials, head-in-the-clouds dreamer stuck in the past. But with my nose buried in a book is the only place I choose to be, and no STEM pamphlet is ever going to pull me away.

 

Kelly Song is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ksong@cornellsun.com. The Songbird Sings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.