When anyone asked me why I majored in English, I always gave the same response: “Mostly just because I want to be sure I don’t get a job after I graduate.”
It’s not that funny, but it’s ironic. I like irony. And up until now I didn’t think twice of it.
But there is one funny thing about this kind of irony, and I want to take a break from this column’s normally ironic programming of farting and awkward eye contact to discuss it seriously. The thing about this irony is that it serves as a mask, hiding a deep insecurity I harbored but never took up seriously until this semester.
Whenever I told my friends back home—who mostly are engineering and science majors at schools in California—that I concentrated in English, they rolled their eyes, called me “fuzzy,” or thought my head was in the clouds. They also asked what a “concentration” was. But all that wasn’t that bad. I could take the blatant teasing. It was fun.
But at Harvard, the challenges are not as blatant. Excepting a rogue Crimson editorial here and there, most of the pressure against the humanities is more implicit. It usually comes in the form of a joke from a fellow student, or even from authoritative figures in the University. For instance, Mankiw made a joke about humanities majors not being able to find jobs in the last lecture of Ec 10 last year, while giving general advice to freshman deciding between concentrations. Even in my own house, a tutor talked about quiet hours for the semester at a meeting, saying science and social science majors needed to work hard, study, and get sleep in the House. The humanities concentrators weren’t mentioned, implying (intentionally or not) that their major was easy, and everyone laughed.
I like jokes. And I didn’t think these ones really affected me. Eventually, I started participating in it, making self-deprecating jokes about my education. But somehow, as I jested about my major’s legitimacy, I actually began feeling that it wasn’t legitimate. It was a slow change, and I only realized it was occurring after I took Physics 15a my sophomore fall. I enrolled in the course because I missed physics from high school. It turned out that I did better in the class than I thought I would: better than I did in my humanities classes and better than some of the future physics concentrators did around me.
It was then, and only then, that I felt kind of smart or deserving to be here. The English classes somehow didn’t do that. Although they meant a lot to me, I joked about English classes. And soon, they became jokes themselves.
I thought about switching my concentration to physics or astrophysics. But as I took more classes, the novelty and self-legitimizing wore off, and I realized I missed the study of language. I figured out that, in addition to exploring a genuine interest, I decided to pursue physics for some of the wrong reasons as well—the respect of my peers among them.
Now I realize the harm in what’s meant to be a harmless joke. Jokes are fun and fleeting. Because of that, they don’t breed serious, productive discussions. But, over time, they add up. And they can breed an insecurity that challenges the merits and identities of humanities concentrators. What’s worse is that they can scare away potential concentrators, while avoiding a productive discussion that gets at the factual heart of the issues.
So if you have a problem with the humanities, please tell me. And tell me straight. I’d love to discuss why I may or may not agree.
But please don’t jest. Please don’t imply. Please don’t add to the ironic self-awareness surrounding the humanities that could bring its demise for the wrong reasons.
Of course, I was the biggest culprit of this ironic attitude. But it’s only by collectively shedding that attitude that we can dismantle stigmas bred by off-hand comments. There is a discussion to be had about the humanities in today’s world. And that conversation is best had outside the veil of irony.
Otherwise, the humanities could fall victim not to its merits, but to one of its great topics of study: the workings of irony. And that irony would be too devastating to handle.
Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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