Words by Carly Gillingham
One notable aspect of the college experience is the subtle competition between students studying vastly different majors. Whether or not it’s something you seriously consider when deciding your area of focus while at university, people often like to inquire about your ideal post-college profession, and typically include some unsolicited judgment in the process, especially regarding how much you might earn.
The primary rift is generally between those majoring in humanities and those in the STEM fields. Stereotypically, humanities majors may be seen as impractical, “starving artist” types, while those studying sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics can be seen as pretentious, know-it-all types.
This tension results from something common in disagreements: different definitions of a word. When a STEM major, or anyone, really, says that another major isn’t “practical”, chances are, they’re thinking about money. While it may seem unusual to some, not everyone allows the future monetary value of their studies to strongly influence their choice of a major. Burning Tree Magazine asked a few students of various areas of the humanities about their experience with this phenomenon.
“When I tell people I’m a creative writing major, there’s like, this rage that erupts from them. It weirds me out,” said Meagan Johnson, a freshman at FSU. “It’s easy when they devalue your work, to be like, ‘God, I hate STEM Majors’, and there’s this little annoyance between majors not appreciating each other.” Maddy Pendarvis, a sophomore studying English Literature with a minor in business, agreed: “I live with three STEM majors. One of my roommates can tell you that humanities majors will never do anything successful with their lives, and everything she does is better than anything I will ever do.” On the other end of the spectrum, Turner Means remarked that even humanities majors can have a superiority complex, and believe that “the humanities are infinitely better than STEM, STEM majors are dumb”.
It’s clearly a source of frustration. So we asked these students what exactly defines usefulness and practicality for them.
“Useful depends on what you find important in your life. I don’t think monetary importance has to do with the usefulness of anything,” said Caleb Cannella, a freshman majoring in Art History with a minor in Chemistry, “Teachers make hardly anything, and without teachers, where would we be? The usefulness of teachers is insanely high, but they don’t have a link to a large monetary value.”
“I’m not studying Art History for money. Social change has actually happened from studying history. You can learn from the results of social movements in history, and art is visual evidence,” stated Taylor Crosby, a senior. “People ignore the fact that humans are the only species who can write a novel, who can paint something, so it’s worth studying.” Meagan Johnson agreed, adding that, “When people study history, it helps our military and has more tangible applications than people give credit for.”
It’s pretty clear that telling a Humanities major they’re not going to make money won’t faze them. We even asked them how they would feel if someone presented hard, empirical evidence to them that they will make less money than a more monetarily-practical area of study. They unanimously shrugged off the question, saying they’re quite aware of the fact.
So, what are the implications of this continuous, competitive rift? Well, just like with anything, competition prevents cooperation. And one humanities major we interviewed said these two areas of study could cooperate better than one might think.
“This concept of being competitive in terms of money polarizes these fields, but you see the most innovative and useful projects when these fields come together. These things do a lot to undermine the collaborative spirit,” said Sophia Irwin-Killingswoth, a sophomore studying Editing, Writing, and Media. In fact, science and art can collaborate beautifully. A recent project has even combined the talents of artists and engineers to use 3D printing applied to architecture.
It really all comes down to different meanings of words like “practical” and “useful”. For these students, studying what they find passion in trumps monetary value.
Tucker Jacobs, a Biology major, offered a contrary view:
“I think [humanities majors] fall into this category of doing something you’re ‘passionate about’, and I’m not sure that’s a wise decision … You can always read books and study literature on your own time,” he commented. “I think that humanities majors are much, much easier to pass, class for class, than skilled majors, like engineering or chemistry, and I think that gets reflected in both the pay rates and employment demand for various undergraduate and graduate degrees.”
For Jacobs, not only is it much smarter to pursue a degree based on the financial payoff, but also such majors are far more difficult because of the financial payoff. It makes sense, theoretically, that if someone works harder and longer in college, they would go into a field in which they receive good pay.
We asked him to elaborate on this idea that STEM majors are required to work harder and go through more stress. “I think it depends on the individual and on the degree. However, there are a lot of humanities degrees which seem to me to require less effort and working knowledge,” he explained. “With humanities, I think that you’re guaranteed to pass if you just put in the time. I mean, with STEM majors you can study for 40 hours for a test and still fail it. English classes, if you put in the time and write the essay, you’ll get at least a C … I don’t think there’s much overlap of stress and difficulty between STEM and humanities majors.”
So, it could definitely be said that this divide and sense of competition comes not only from the differing definitions of what is or is not practical, but also from some feeling that their experience in their major is more difficult. This is the root of the “competition between majors” phenomenon.
However, due to the nearly opposite definitions of practicality – that is, doing something you enjoy versus doing something because you will get money – makes it a moot point to even compare. Completely different mindsets are behind the rift between majors, and it would probably be more of a waste of time than anything to try to convince someone else that your personal definition is the correct one.