In the fall of my senior year in high school, I, like many others, attempted to encapsulate 17 years of my life within a 500 word text box. Every meaningful experience I ever had was meticulously scrubbed, buffed, and polished, akin to a piece of silverware gleaming with promise unfulfilled. Intending to major in English Literature, I refrained from including my less impressive daydreams in the application—hurrying down Locust with a stack of books in hand, poring over Proust in the shade of an old tree on college green, and spending my days emulating the spirit of Jo March in critical seminars and discussions.
Two weeks into my freshman year, I began introducing myself as pre–med.
Though I can't truly explain the state of mind I was in—or how I came to the conclusion that being decent at Biology in high school and being empathetic were the only qualities needed to become a doctor—I can say with absolute certainty that Penn’s pre–professional culture, at least in part, contributed to my radical swerve in career path. I hated the reaction my being an English major elicited: the slight raise of an eyebrow, the small smirk tugging at the lips, the patronizing intonation that accompanied the phrase “Oh....that’s cool.”
“Do what you love” is an adage that has become increasingly out of place. In addition to crushing student debt, unemployment rates, as well as the ever–so-–amiliar imposter syndrome, higher education has developed a drumbeat to a familiar tune: “that STEM subjects–science, technology, engineering, and math—are far more valuable in today’s digital economy and culture than a traditional liberal arts major.”
Annie Ma (C’23), a double major in Art History and Classics says that her majors are often exoticised and perceived as a novel hobby instead of a tangible subject. “It’s just hard because, like for example, if I tell people my major they’ll say, ‘Wow...that’s unique…’, treating it as a novelty instead of something to be respected as well," she says. "You just get a different reaction than when you say ‘I’m majoring in bio.'"
There's a notion that art or humanities–oriented subjects are fundamentally "impractical," especially in the context of employability. Ma says she often felt anxiety over “picking the two most ‘impractical’ majors," though she acknowledges "that rhetoric in itself is flawed" and something she's trying to work on. On top of that, students pursuing such subjects with career concerns are often met with suggestions to look for more employment in business-oriented fields. “I’ve spoken to [Penn students] about worries about the future...and their reassurance to me is ‘Don’t worry, at least you’ll have an Ivy League degree, so you can always go into consulting," Ma says.
Pre–professionalism is to Penn what water is to a fish—one does not exist without the other. That culture permeates every aspect of university life. Social gatherings become networking opportunities, clubs require multiple round applications and interviews, and students exchange resumes like calling cards. That isn’t to say there’s no value in this—there definitely is. The issue is that most of this culture exists within STEM or business–related fields. It also, inevitably, encompasses the degradation of areas of study that exist outside of it.
Nihal Kotraguda (C '20) came to Penn as a pre–med student, originally intending to study Neuroscience. He expressed concerns to his freshman year college advisor about the rigor of his schedule, as well as his dwindling interest in remaining pre–med. In response, his advisor suggested that he "take an easier class, like the polisci class [he] wanted to take."
"In the back of my mind, I was like, 'What?' He wasn't even listening to me when I said I didn't want to be pre–med," Kotraguda says.
The perception of arts or humanities subjects as 'easy' isn't rare, especially at Penn. There is a misconception that subjects without a quantitative or numerical basis lack value, despite the fact that the arts entail equally useful alternative skills.
Undoubtedly, the economic and political climate also contributes to the perception of the arts as “soft subjects.” Several Republican governors, including those in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin, have spoken out against the liberal arts. Former President Barack Obama was quoted saying, "Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." Brad Polumbo, writing for USA Today, lauded President Trump’s decision to limit amounts students can borrow for higher education, allowing young people to use federal student aid in skills–oriented vocational programs, as an excellent “effort to encourage students to choose trade skills over sometimes frivolous and often impractical liberal arts degrees.” In a straitened economy, it follows that students feel pressured to prioritize practicality over passion.
However, this is a false dichotomy.
Education in the arts or humanities area strengthens skills deemed essential by many employers, such as critical thinking, written communication, ethical judgement, and effective teamwork. A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U's) found that employers "overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skill as the best preparation for long-term career success." The research also concluded that "80% of employers...[agree]...that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences."
The discourse surrounding these fields at Penn can tend to appear condescending or negative. Still, in some ways, the flexibility of course options at Penn and the presence of general education requirements can provide them with a sense of legitimacy to counteract this dialogue. These requirements push students to take courses outside of their major in a variety of sectors, forcing them to develop an array of skills outside their area of expertise. Despite widespread distaste for the writing seminar program, courses similar to its premise mandate some development of critical thinking and writing skills.
Moreover, Penn's institutional prestige can alleviate employment concerns and anxieties felt by art students. For example, after Kotraguda decided to opt out of pre–med, he felt comfortable in finding what he was genuinely passionate about. "Because....we have high–quality professors, and classes, for the most part, my first step wasn't to ask, 'What is my next career going to be after quitting pre–med?' It was...[to] to find something that I truly enjoy studying."
Furthermore, students in arts and humanities find a tremendous amount of support from their department. Kotraguda highlights the comfort he has found within the Political Science Department. "Every single professor has been so willing to talk in their own time and passionate about what they do," he says. "Through the department itself, I've been able to meet other TAs and other professors who are willing to help students in the subject."
Though employability is often discussed in the restrictive domains of OCR and graduate school, students in the humanities may also find support in programs such as Real Arts@Penn—a program connecting creative arts students with internships specifically pertaining to their field of study. Their program includes a host of opportunities within a variety of disciplines, including journalism, film, music, and theatre.
Ultimately, however, there is a pressing need for structural change in the discourse surrounding the arts at Penn, in the context of administrators, advisors, professors, and students. At Penn, STEM and Wharton based subject are considered synonymous with practicality.
It's high time we updated the definition.