Last week, I had a conversation that exemplified the University’s cultural hierarchy of majors. It occurred by Wilson, where I came across a first-year who was struggling to move an orange cart full of packages to Forbes. I stopped to help him, and we soon started chatting. Inevitably, talk turned to our studies, and I told him that I was a junior in the music department.
The cart jerked as he did a double take. “You’re a music major?” he asked, dumbfounded. “How are your parents okay with this?”
I almost burst out laughing — not because his thought process was unexpected, but because he had chosen to verbalize it so openly. The idea that at Princeton certain majors are inherently worth more than others has always baffled me, especially since it pays no regard to individual performance within each major. This isn’t a problem exclusive to music majors; we are often joined by our compatriots in the art history, language, or comparative literature departments, to name a few. Rarely are the social challenges we face so humorous as my encounter with this first-year; instead, we face the demoralising suggestion that our classes are less rigorous, our schedules less demanding, our aspirations less ambitious.
There is a well-known Hindi expression, “Log kya kahenge?” which translates to “What will people say?” Life at Princeton can often embody this phrase. As students at a school whose rigor and competitiveness challenge even the most confident among us to reevaluate our self-worth, we are extremely vulnerable to the opinions of our peers. This can be seen in the carefully cultivated social media posts, the ever-present Duck Syndrome, and the casually conversational humble brags. Like it or not, we seek to impress each other — but when we are met with disdain, it stings.
The consequences of such a stigma can be trivial at best and adversely life-changing at worst. Thanks to the support of those closest to me, I made peace with my decision to become a music major my first year. Yet these days, I cannot help but state my major with a strange defensiveness, sometimes even tacking on a quick “I’m minoring in American studies” as if to assure people that I’m not a completely lost cause. And for some of my classmates, what people will say — and do say — becomes too much for them, and they convert to majors that, although personally non-stimulating and uninteresting, are considered “worthy” and “rigorous” by their community.
Peer pressure’s ability to steer students away from their passions is regrettable. There is inestimable value in pursuing one’s ideal major — even if it doesn’t fall under STEM or economics, those two most common of current University practices. Setting aside for a moment intangible results like happiness and fulfillment — because even I’m not so naive as to believe that they matter much to University students when compared to resumes or income — one cannot deny the positive impact of pursuing one’s genuine interests on post-graduation plans. After all, if excellent performance in college is crucial to job or grad school attainment, then we might as well do what we love — not necessarily because the money will always follow, but because we’ll probably be good at it.
Consider law school, a prime destination for many University undergrads. The two factors that matter the most in the application process are 1) LSAT or GRE score and 2) GPA. The LSAT score, obviously, has no relationship to one’s major whatsoever. On the other hand, GPA does — in that to attain as high as GPA as possible, you obviously want to select the major in which you will perform the best. In most cases, that will be the major you’re most passionate about, simply because having a natural interest in something typically leads to higher self-motivation and superior work, whereas a lack of engagement is not only difficult to conceal, but also to beautify.
What’s more, beneath the debate over majors lies the fact that at the end of the day, we attend Princeton University. Unfair though it might be, a degree from Princeton is worth more than from most of its counterparts, regardless of whatever field it may be in. As such, discussions regarding “The Top 10 Worst/Least Employable/Stupidest Majors” don’t really apply to us. Not for nothing does Princeton’s Career Services tout its impressive statistics: For the Class of 2015, within six months of graduation, 70 percent accepted employment, 19 percent pursued further education, and 93.5 percent confirmed achieving their post-graduation plans. These are pretty comforting results, and only prove that one’s major matters less than how one uses it.
Establishing a hierarchy of majors at any university is questionable. But at Princeton, it is downright frivolous and self-defeating, reflective of our pathological impulse to build ourselves up by putting others down. We should spend less time judging our classmates’ decisions and more time reflecting on our own — whether we’re making the right ones, for the right reasons, and for the right people — and trusting in our collective ability to succeed. Only then will we be fulfilled in the right ways, personally, academically, and professionally, and only then will we topple an unacknowledged pillar of prejudice that stands tall at this university.
Lou Chen is a music major from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.