November 29, 2022

DO | Humanities on a Deserted Island

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Imagine that you’ve been told to restart civilization on a deserted island and can choose whom to bring with you. Which professions would be in your lineup?

A doctor is an easy first pick for me; I’d take a surgeon, gynecologist and a general practitioner. Agricultural experts like farmers, botanists and food scientists are crucial to have. I’d also throw in a mechanical engineer, meteorologist, material scientist and a carpenter. 

To make this more personal to Cornell students, let’s consider this game in terms of college majors instead of careers: which majors would you want to start a new civilization with? Right off the bat, majors from all of Human Ecology, Dyson, Hotel, ILR and most of Arts & Sciences can all be nixed entirely, save for maybe Nutritional Science in Human Ecology. CALS and Engineering are where we find the most bang for our buck, with such majors as Food Science, Animal Science, Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Engineering having obvious utility.

You may notice that humanities majors are nowhere to be found in the United States of Noah’s Arc. Even as an English major and a defender of the humanities as fields of study, I have to admit that slam poets and opinion columnists have little to contribute to my budding civilization. The same applies to the big tech programmers, the napkin-folding Hotel students and the ILRies who study … something, I’m sure. Not sure there’s any need for Microsoft Excel, though.

Clearly, this doesn’t make these majors any less lucrative, but it raises an interesting question: how can careers that are so unnecessary for human survival make so much money? There is a moral qualm to be found here, especially in a world where YouTubers who record themselves eating food make more money than some doctors will ever see in their entire lives. 

Some of the most interesting classes I’ve taken at Cornell — creative nonfiction writing, Asian-American studies, social psychology — have also been the most difficult to rationalize spending my (parents’) money on. It’s fascinating to learn about the history of Asian-American diaspora or the Temporal Construal Theory, but I can’t help but wonder whether such abstract labels are overcomplicating this whole humanity thing. 

Even my column (and most opinion columns) is merely an overcomplication of my everyday life. The fact that people can make a living off of writing their opinions, whether in newspapers, blogs, books. etc., indicates that we, as a species, have more or less run out of things to do. Most of the world is so far removed from the challenges of primitive survival that we are willing to pay others to share entirely inconsequential things about their lives. 

I still don’t fully understand why we find as much value in relating to each others’ experiences as we do. Most STEM fields can be easily connected to some improvement in humans’ survivability on Earth, like biomedical engineers creating technologies that can cure diseases. The humanities, on the other hand, merely make the experience of surviving a little more meaningful and more complicated than it would be otherwise. 

Whether or not I reflect on my experiences as an Asian-American or my struggle to craft meaningful memories in college, my life will chug along as normal and all this rumination will amount to a brief five-minute read that a handful of readers will get a chuckle out of. I can draw as many profound conclusions about Asian-Americanness from my life as I want, but ultimately my experiences are defined more by the individual people I go through life with than by whatever a humanities professor would have to say about why I behave the way I do.

Clearly, humanities majors won’t be the ones making scientific breakthroughs or building bridges. Most of them will make a living simply learning and sharing what it means to be a human being, whether that be through research in sociology or writing memoirs about their deceased pet hamsters. However nonsensical it might seem at first that these pursuits can make money, they signify that there is so much more to life than survival.

For the United States of Noah’s Arc, though, survival will remain our nation’s primary focus for quite some time. I’ll have to let society develop a bit more before I allow any economics or art history majors onto our island. 

I’m curious to hear which professions my readers would choose for their primitive societies, so my inbox is always open to hear your lineups; I’m sure there are many jobs with crucial skill sets that I haven’t considered yet. Maybe someone out there would want writers and philosophers to be responsible for the survival of the human race. I’ll stick to my undershowered STEM nerds.

Noah Do is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Noah’s Arc runs every other Sunday this semester.