The Useless Major: Oh you studied anthropology/art history? I’d like fries with that

You confront another adult, you begin chatting, you ask where the other went to undergrad, and what he/she studied. “I studied management, business, education, engineering, pre-med,” etc. etc. are common responses. When I respond, though, I am proud and a little weary to state, “anthropology and art history.” Immediately, you see a glimpse of amusement in their eyes, forced restraint against smirking, and the ever-so-disparaging, “Oh, that sounds interesting and fun.” Translation? “That sounds easy and useless.” Granted, I am not going to pretend that I had any classes as intense and strenuous as chemistry, calculus, or engineering, but that is a personal view. Others may think 20-page papers and short-answer essay exams are horrible. During college, my roommate, an electrical engineer, and I would be stressed about our assignments. To make ourselves feel better, we’d switch textbooks and read what seemed like another language, and then our relative assignments seemed less daunting. There is nothing that will make you feel better about a 20-page research paper than reading a paragraph about circuits and deciphering a diagram that looked like it was drawn by an autistic pigeon. My roommate’s motivation to complete her assignment would certainly improve after realizing that she didn’t have to drone on about female funerary roles portrayed on amphorae and stelae during the Archaic and Classical period.

My point is that majors in the humanities and social sciences are usually considered less challenging, which is not a fair statement. Math can come easily to some and the thought of analytical writing makes those people faint. It’s a two-way street: not all anthropology majors are brilliant and not all biology majors are motivated. Your education is what you make of it. You can decide to be completely useless at Geology, or you can begin to notice the statues on your campus and guess the type of rock used (yeah, I chose useless). It is possible that you couldn’t care less about Italian cultural history, but when you begin to notices the similarities between Italian and American college students, it becomes interesting and relatable. Not all the brilliant and driven people in the world should become doctors; we need intelligent English majors and museum curators. Follow your passion and become the master of what you love.

I came across a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called, What Don’t They Apply What They Learn (Pt. 3), by James Lang, that discussed how students have difficulties transferring what they learned from one context (in class) to another (the real world). For students studying engineering, business, or medicine, those skills are integrated into the classroom and directly relevant to the students’ careers. However, for students who take the social science and humanities path, that obvious applicability is absent.

I agree, especially since I spent my college career studying Durkheim and Spencer, all of whom seemed to be bearded and outdated armchair anthropologist who could not possibly be applicable to our world. But they are if you are willing to make the connections between the theory and the modern-day world. So the article provides a few examples of how professors give students assignments that force them to apply their coursework to the real world. My absolute favorite example is a photography project assigned to students in Esteban Loustaunau’s Latin American studies class. The students read Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, in which a part of the project is, “to give voice to indigenous Quechua speakers in Peru by providing them with cameras and allowing them to tell their own stories through their photographs.” The project helps students see that, “art can bring about social change by empowering marginalized members of the community.”

Let me be candid: that is just the coolest. What better way to elucidate a group’s problems, passions, and visions of daily life, than to see the photographs they take? The photographer sees a medium—a beautiful façade, a dangerous protest, a starving family—and captures that image to fulfill a certain agenda—whether it is to encourage tourists to visit, provide images for a news story, or work towards a humanitarian cause. Or, in the case of the Quechua people, to communicate, via images, what their life is like. The project combines two “humanities”—art and Latin American studies, in a creative and useful way. Now, I’m sure there are people who say that photographs aren’t going to end world hunger or wars, rather, governmental policy and the Red Cross will. But I have a retort; we are a society built on images. Just look at your facebook feed, how many memes and pictures of funny cats do you see? A ton (or maybe I just have weird friends). How many iconic images are there? Millions. Che Guevara, the Unknown Rebel, Migrant Mother, and the list continues. So I’m dying to ask: which classes teach students about the intentions and culture around these images? Art history and anthropology, and I’m willing to guess that these images are relevant in sociology, political science, and Latin American studies courses. But there is nothing more iconic than a simple, powerful photo intentionally taken and accidentally famous.

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