Sunday, October 10, 2010

Two Columns

The following is a pair of columns I wrote for the Indiana Daily Student. The first was published September 29, 2009. The second was published . In the interim, I had done exactly what the first column satirizes. The second is almost an apology, attempting to reconcile my decision to add an English major with the original column. 


There is an alarming trend sweeping our great Hoosier Nation. It’s an arms race, a stockpiling of deadly weaponry set to wipe the entire species of college student off the face of the Earth. It’s called Major Proliferation, and it’s taking us to the brink of disaster. It all started in 1939 with a government project codenamed “The Brooklyn Project.” It was initiated to research whether it was possible to split the college student—forcing it to complete two degrees in just four years.

The theorists thought it couldn’t be done. They claimed it violated the Law of Conservation of Credit Hours. They said no student could handle the extreme pressures needed to reach the point of fission. They predicted that the daughter particles—er, students—would be unstable and decay in nanoseconds.
But if these challenges were overcome, the Double Major would be the most powerful force ever released on the job market. So the government pushed forward, hoping to give the U.S. a leg up on the rest of world.
The first test of a Double Major was successful. A 130 credit hour device, it was a Physics and Astronomy major from the previously unheard of “University 51.” It was barely beyond the intensity of conventional one major/two minor combinations which had been in use for decades. By today’s standards, a slacker. Before long, there were escalations: BS/BS Dual Degrees, Separate Division Dual Degrees, Triple Majors, Double Majors Who Graduate Early.
In 2005, scientists created the mother of all terrors: the Music/Business/Chemistry major. Just think of the aftermath of such devastation. A shell of a human, a soul nearly extinguished by the sheer volume of prerequisite coursework.
Hoosiers, we can no longer afford to live in fear of Weapons of Mass Sleep Deprivation.
That’s why today I propose  a series of diplomatic meetings called SMLT—Strategic Majors Limitations Talks. The multimajors and unimajors will sit down, discussing ways to prevent MASS: Mutually Assured Stress Sickness.
Without quick intervention, a downward spiral will begin. Eventually everyone will be taking summer classes “to get ahead.” The superachievers will create secret bunkers of majors ready to deploy in the worst case scenario: a free space in their schedule. When you consider whether to take action, think of the students. Think of the millions of Biology/Chemistry majors who dread not getting into med school  because they didn’t add Neuroscience. Think of the tens of Accounting/Folklore and Ethnomusicology majors who lose sleep deciding if they seem interesting enough without that IMP in Cobbling and Haberdashery.
Together, we can stop this madness. Stand with me: declare one major, and don’t give in to temptation. Resist the urge to say things like “it’s only 3 more classes for a Spanish major, I might as well.”
When they ask you “What are your majors?” channel your English teacher and correct their grammar. Remember the way he said, “You mean were, subjunctive. If I were a rich man…” Just like that. Say “You mean major, singular. My major is…”


“What do you do with a B.A. in English?” asks Princeton, the character from “Avenue Q” for whom “the world is a big scary place.”
Today, I’m eating my words. Last September, I lampooned the “proliferation” of majors, trying to combat the overcredentialization happening in college today.
Now I plead guilty. Last Wednesday, I officially declared a second degree, a Bachelor of Arts in English. 
I find ways to circumnavigate my previous stance, rationalizing that back then I was really only lashing out against the bad reasons people use for adding majors. For example, I still find it indefensible to add a major because “it’s only a few more classes.” These evasions, though, still seem hollow, so I’ll just concede the hypocrisy and move on. 
While this addition might come as a surprise to the people who know me as The Math Guy, it is not foreign to me.
I come from word people. My father is a word man, as was his father before him. They are English teachers. The love of words is in my blood, and this inheritance evokes a silent stirring which draws me back to the word.
Along with surprise, I often get kudos for being “well-rounded” or using “both sides of the brain.” I find this frustrating. First, it exemplifies the tendency to only treat interests which are legitimized by a degree as genuine.
Second, I dislike the right-brain/left-brain conceit. It assumes that just because the brain is split into hemispheres that the mind is divisible into two meaningfully distinct halves. Based in some science, it has been overextended, overused and oversimplified. 
There is one reaction I don’t receive. My math major shields me from the interrogators who demand of most English majors, “But who will hire you?” 
It is a common lament among English majors who, after so many rounds of questioning, have resigned themselves to the expectation of post-baccalaureate unemployment.
The imperative of economic value extends beyond individuals. Increasingly, cash-strapped universities and society in general force the humanities to justify their existence.
These trends have followed from the commodification of the college degree. 
Because universities are now the gatekeepers to the white-collar professional world, students see the campus as a marketplace and the college experience as an exchange of goods. We pay a (rapidly increasing) price for a diploma, which we then try to trade for a comfy, salaried position.
But as the “Avenue Q” song observes, our technocratic society views a B.A. in English as a “useless degree” because it does not give students a specialized set of skills.
Indiana University should be different. IU’s roots are in the liberal arts, and its core unit, the College of Arts and Sciences, is a liberal arts institution. Moreover, we do not have an engineering school.
However, even here, we have a business school whose careerism is borderline dangerous and attitudes toward the humanities that are inappropriate for a university like ours.
While reality can be harsh, I’ll end on a note of idealism courtesy of Princeton:
“But somehow I can’t shake / the feeling I might make / a difference to the human race.”

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