In an earlier post I touched upon the subject of education, writing that Russian Jews of a certain age often view college as a pressure cooker for liberal propaganda. I find that, in addition to this one-sided view, many Russian Jews both old and young approach the term “liberal arts” with general skepticism, if not disdain. These sentiments are not unwarranted, considering that in the Soviet Union, vocational training was the basis for higher education. However, because of inherent discrepancies between the philosophies underlying vocational and liberal arts educations, major conflicts erupt when Russian parents decide to send their budding young scholars off to college.
As a freshman in college with scores of interests, you’re granted the blessed opportunity to explore. During this period of self-discovery, young undergrads sample from a rich palette of fields while slogging through mandatory general education courses that may or may not be relevant to them. After two years of navigating through an academic hodgepodge, most students are good and ready to set foot on a strict route toward that illustrious college degree. Whether or not that degree is worth what it was some decades ago, is something else worth mulling over.
Many Russian Jewish parents are baffled by humanities majors and their real-world applications. “Soft” majors like English, philosophy, and even psychology often produce more than one raised eyebrow from well-meaning relatives. Usually this bafflement is often accompanied by questions like, “What will you do with a degree in [x]?” What the older generation doesn’t understand is that a college major is not a direct entryway to a specific job. Rather, it demonstrates that you have satisfactorily completed a rigorous scholarly program, which taught you to think critically and intelligently on a wide array of subjects. What a humanities major does not do, is put a roadblock on a career. On the contrary, many experts argue that “interesting” or non-typical majors actually give job applicants an edge in the hiring pool. So there is nothing keeping English majors from entering the business world or philosophy majors from becoming scientists.
But the older generation is certainly not the only one with this mentality. Plenty of people my age who study what they consider to be “practical majors” — sneer at humanities majors or allude to our inevitable end on the streets unless we start studying economics, pronto. It’s an unfortunate mindset that largely determines many college students’ academic trajectory. Rather than focusing on strengths and interests, students immediately delve into whatever baccalaureate program they’re convinced will translate into a higher salary later in life. What’s scary to me about this is that, sure — you’ll have the salary you’ve always dreamed of and make your whole family proud. But you might also realize you’ve spent half your life doing something you hate, only when it’s too late.
Samantha Shokin, 22, is a senior at NYU Gallatin, concentrating in literary journalism. She was born in NYC and lives in Brooklyn with her mother and father, who emigrated from Ukraine and Lithuania, respectively.