On Choosing a "Useless" Major--Guest Post by Miles Raymer

Note from Katie: This is a guest post by Miles Raymer, offering his perspective on choosing to major in something everyone tells you not to major in. He argues that pursuing a passion is a rational and essential choice: that in this unstable economic and social climate there are no safe choices and so the best thing we can do is to be extremely well-educated in whatever most motivates us. Miles not only switched from a "useful" major to a "useless" one, but followed one kind of passion--teaching--through completion of a teaching credential and a year of English teaching in Japan before he made a careful and informed decision to practice sustainable agriculture on the land where he grew up. His decisions and successes are informed by his academic grounding, and I imagine the process he describes will be familiar to many of those considering majors outside the category of "clearly useful."

Miles also writes a blog called words&dirt, in which he combines journals about his progress with sustainable agriculture with daily interesting quotes from the books he's reading--typically one fiction and one non-fiction.

On Choosing

What are you going to do with that?

This question is a hallmark of the college experience for any modern student who decides to major in a range of fields considered by many to be "useless." 

These "useless" majors tend to huddle together in the mildewing halls of our nation's humanities departments, and are most often maligned by people comfortably assured of their embeddedness in supposedly "useful" STEM vocational tracks (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  The act of referring to certain majors as "useful" or "useless" is so commonplace and relativistic that the content (or lack thereof) to which these labels refer is nebulous at best.  Due to my general skepticism about the fruitfulness of any attempt to locate consistent definitions for such terms, it's enough to say that inquiries of the aforementioned ilk can almost always be translated into veiled attempts to remind us that, after all, economic matters are the dominant motivating force in modern education.

Unless your passions fall naturally within realm of "useful," it's likely that you will, at some point in your college experience, face a decision between studying something you are passionate about and something that fails to move you but feels like a more practical choice.  And while there exist plenty of circumstances where the choice between passion and practicality can be revealed as a false dilemma, many students face a genuine trade-off in deciding where to invest the lion's share of their academic energy.  If you find yourself drawn to a "useless" major, how can you possibly justify spending so much time and money to pursue an avocational pastime in an era when universities all over the country are initiating the painstaking process of abandoning a long tradition of liberal arts education in order to recast themselves as the primary providers of the requisite skills for white-collar vocational tracks?

As someone who decided to switch my major from pre-journalism to philosophy after just a few weeks into my first term at the University of Oregon, I will try to use my experiences and the benefits of hindsight to proffer an answer to this question. 

An Anecdotal Offering

Before I dive into my own story, a quick caveat: Students from different socioeconomic strata do (and, in fact, must) approach this problem in functionally distinct ways.  Those privileged to come from a background that allows for or encourages the pursuit of passion over practicality will have a much easier time resolving this matter than those for whom education is the first rung on the long, increasingly slippery ladder to a better life.  In the interest of full disclosure, I identify as a member of the former group; as such, my case for passion is undeniably informed and shaped by the privileged position into which I was born.  If there is a valid argument to convince those from less privileged conditions to choose passion over more practical matters, it is not my place to make it.  

As is the case with many humanities majors, my story begins with an inspirational teacher. Professor Mark Johnson, a gangly man who always wore a tie and loved to introduce philosophers by digging up the least flattering picture available, exuded a sense of mindfulness and candor I'd never encountered before.  Quite simply, sitting in Professor Johnson's class felt like coming home.  After just four weeks in his "Philosophical Problems" survey course, I knew I wanted to change my major.  I was wary of the "impractical" nature of this impulse, but a graduate student named Mat Foust soon persuaded me to follow my instincts.  As the leader of my discussion section for Johnson's course, it was he who, upon overhearing me express a desire to change my major, pounced with the mélange of zeal and prudence wielded by those who doggedly pursue their intellectual passions above all else.  Foust, now a dear friend and mentor, quickly revealed himself as the kind of influential teacher without whom my life's story would be incomplete. 

After switching majors, I began the long process of immersing myself in any course that sounded intriguing: Asian Philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Film, Existentialism, etc.  Under the guidance of generous and patient instructors, I developed a passionate interest in ethics.  I began to see myself as a site of ongoing exchange between my routine behaviors and my environment's dominant value systems.  I realized that my habits of perception as well as my general conduct were undergoing a profound transformation.  This transformation, though fueled by a tradition infamous for extreme abstraction, proved more than merely academic.  It permeated my personal life, enriching my friendships and providing a glimmer of hope for my long-neglected relationship with my sister.  It enhanced my participation in seemingly unrelated activities, such as singing in choir and playing ultimate frisbee.  Most profoundly, philosophy reorganized and deepened my understanding of worlds beyond my immediate grasp, revoking my license to see myself as anything other than a highly structured splash of DNA and saline whose well being is inextricably tied to that of other humans, and also to other biological communities and physical processes.

When it came time to leave school, philosophy went with me, shedding light at every turn.  It lived in the classrooms where I struggled to find my place as a new teacher.  It blossomed when I fell in love and started planning my life for two people instead of just one.  It strained to adapt when I traveled to Japan for a year to live and work in Japanese schools.  And it sighed in relief when I decided that teaching didn't work for me and that it was time to go home and try something new.  Far beyond opening the door to future job prospects, majoring in philosophy helped me construct a way of life, one without which my experience could never be as rewarding or challenging.  It's not that I can't imagine having a perfectly decent life as a journalist, or scientist, or computer programmer, or one of a thousand fascinating and worthy professions; it's that I'd never want to, because philosophy isn't just what I chose to study––it's who I am.                

Building a new garden bed.

Building a new garden bed.

The Case for Passion

Although I hope it may be useful to hear the story of someone who flourished by choosing a "useless" major, I don't think my experiences alone should be enough to convince anyone to choose passion over practicality, should the need to make such a decision arise.  So let me also make a more general argument for why I think majoring in something that incites passion isn't just a matter of personal fulfillment, but also of cultivating and sustaining the health of the global community.    

We are growing up in a time of change, one in which our dollar-saturated brains are struggling to come to terms with an economic model that has proven ecologically destructive and unsustainable but has yet to be supplanted by a model that supports human flourishing and equality for all living communities (human and otherwise).  Dave Hensen, an old family friend, activist, and one of the founding members of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, recently told me that although we no longer have a choice about whether or not we will undergo a massive global transition, we do have a choice about whether or not it will be a just transition, one in which the gap between the haves and have nots does not continue to widen, and in which people gain the graceful obstinacy to insist that, this time, the human community progresses with everyone together or not at all.  If you agree that we are living in such a moment and that this kind of choice lies before all of us, then I believe you will take the following question seriously:

What do I need to play my part in a just transition? 

This question offers a host of criteria far superior to that of an economically-driven approach when the time comes to choose what you will study.  In this era of volatile markets and shifting fiscal currents, those who spend their lives learning the ropes of an outdated system will profit only in the short run, and will prove less adaptable than those who cultivate a self-directed lifestyle that harmonizes with human zeal and mutable intelligence.  A just transition certainly requires whatever technology and science we can muster, but it also demands compassion and complex understanding––the great gifts of a diverse academy that gives credence to a wide range of scholarly endeavors.  A new world necessitates a new generation of creative minds dedicated to the enrichment of experience at all levels of biological organization. 

If your passions lead you in such a direction, and if your life won't instantly fall apart if you decide to major in Medieval Studies, then it's my contention that not only do you need to follow the impulse to do what you love, but that your fellow living creatures need it too.   


Please leave feedback below! Have you made a similar decision? What do you think about balancing passion and practicality? How do you imagine your place and decisions in the changing world? And how will your college major stick with you over time? Let us know!