Perched on the roof of the Singh Center lounge, two of my best friends and I stared at our piles of homework and groaned. My friend in an Engineering and College dual degree had problem sets. My friend in Wharton grappled with a marketing assignment. I had a column to write and a book to read.
“You don’t even get what work is,” my friends joked with me. I droned about the critical thinking skills I’d obtain, the value inherent in absorbing a text. They didn’t understand.
Last week, an article in The Washington Post stated that the number of English majors at the University of Maryland has plummeted by 39 percent in the past five years. The university is striving to obtain people who want to study English. Just as college students are struggling to compete with each other for post-graduation jobs, so are English departments across the country seeking to compete with other departments for prospective students. In a climate where we constantly focus on the paycheck after graduation, it’s difficult to persuade students towards subjects that don’t exactly have the automatic monetary connotations as business or computer science.
That decline hasn’t occurred at Penn, according to Undergraduate Chair of the English Department Michael Gamer. “We have not seen a significant drop in the number of majors over the past decade,” he wrote in an email. “In part it’s because the department is in a very good place right now ... because our majors do extremely well in the job market.” With the recent USA Today ranking of Penn with the second best English department in the country, it’s clear the department excels. But I still see students on an everyday basis foregoing majors like English in favor of “more employable” areas.
The drop in humanities majors seems, at least to me, directly correlated to the rising cost of college. The economy is recovering too slowly, the price of college has increased and, to be fair, graduating with a degree in English doesn’t guarantee me the same job security as one from Wharton. I’m the first to joke with my Engineering friends about how I’ll crash on their couches when I’m failing to write the great American novel. A friend in Wharton prefaces bets with me by saying he’ll give me his first month’s salary if I win, and it’ll be three times the size of mine. Penn’s Student Financial Services has treated me kindly enough that I don’t need to take out loans, but some of my friends — who will be crushed with debt the moment they graduate — don’t have the same luxury. One of my closest friends swears he would major in history if he didn’t have to pay off his expenses. When answering the standard, “What are you studying?” question from a Wharton student I just met, I was told that my English and Political Science double majors were “the dream,” but he chose business out of practicality.
The high price of college sucks the meaning out of college itself. When we choose our fields of study based on the potential outcomes, we lose the central purpose of selecting a major at all: to narrow down a field we’re truly interested in, and then to push for excellence in that area. There’s beauty and meaning in following our guts and studying what we are genuinely passionate about. Too few of my friends seem genuinely enthused about their classes; instead, they focus on simply getting through the required work, just making it by until the weekend. We’re too young to compromise in a place with so many academic opportunities. We came to Penn to pursue our interests. The cost of attendance should not force our hands.
My humanities studies provide me with an education for life. I can carry snippets of E.E. Cummings poems through every stage I progress through; “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” moves me in a way no equation can. To recognize the value of an education, we need to improve access to college — or miss out on the purpose of college at all.Comments powered by Disqus
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