“What are you going to do with that major?”
As a young person with a liberal arts degree in art, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question. Not only is it mildly irritating because of its not-so-subtle suggestion that my interests and qualifications are worthless or worth less than others, it also actively works to sustain this strange, existing hierarchy that regards some academic disciplines — which later turn into life pursuits — as more valid, valuable, and important than others. This bullshit hierarchy hurts so many people on so many levels. I feel fortunate to have finally arrived at a place where I feel progressively more comfortable, grounded, and confident in the value of my own developing skill set and my ability to make a positive contribution to the world, but it makes me sick to see friends and acquaintances struggling to see their own worth in this career/success-driven culture.
Here are some interesting distinctions between “important” and “unimportant” academic/career pursuits:
1.) “Important” pursuits often deal with numbers, while “unimportant” pursuits tend more toward words (or other mediums and modes of communication).
2.) “Important” pursuits frequently rely heavily on a specialized understanding of terminology. Often the concepts are not terribly difficult for the everyday person to understand — the main barrier to understanding is the language constructed around the discipline.
3.) Those who choose to focus on “important” disciplines are often promised jobs straight out of school, or at least led to believe that they won’t need to worry much about having a successful career post-graduation. This is often a false promise (and a subject for another blog post).
4.) Most of the “important” fields have traditionally been male-dominated, in part because the types of problems that are addressed demand rational and concrete solutions: traits associated with dominant forms of masculinity.
5.) Many of the “unimportant” fields work with problems that have complex and not-so-straightforward solutions. Sometimes solving these problems requires intuition: the amazing ability that most humans have to “know” or “understand” on a deeper level without the need for rational, highly conscious, data-based reasoning. Other times, effective solutions demand a form of interpersonal or emotional intelligence. Some may argue that the traits required for problem-solving in these fields closely resemble characteristics associated with dominant forms of femininity. The close relationship between misogyny and the distinction between "valuable" and "less valuable/not valuable" is no coincidence (but it is also a potential tangent and a subject for another post).
6.) Some “unimportant” fields are subject to the bias that work done with bodies is less valuable than work done with minds. These fields often require a great deal more mind power than is immediately evident, but that is beside the point. Skills are skills, and all skills - physical and mental - are important.
“Important” fields are often categorized under the STEM label. Now don’t get me wrong — I am not trying to put down the STEM fields or insinuate that they are less important than the arts, trades, and humanities. I am only saying that STEM fields are not any more important than anything else. We need to stop hierarchizing skill sets because that is all they are: things that we can do, not who we are. With the widening gap between the rich and everyone else and the divisions between “valuable” and “worth less/worthless” becoming more and more defined along these arbitrary lines, shit will soon hit the fan if it has not already. Recognizing the beauty of diversity in all of its forms and questioning and changing what we deem valid, valuable, and important is an important step in reversing this process.