I’m student of the month for English and an assistant principal gives out a list of the most lucrative college majors. The first ten have names so complex that I’d need an engineering textbook and an Advil if I wanted to know what they meant. I’m in math and the girl behind me asks what I want to be when I grow up. I don’t give more than a shrug until my friend answers for me. It’s assumed that I’m in AP Biology. I’m sitting in chemistry, hoping my teacher puts my test face down. I’m relieved when I get my first score that’s less than perfect and my parents finally stop suggesting that science is my calling. I know that “STEM” is a term with meanings far beyond botany, and I know that I should be in love with it.
I’m supposed to embrace fact or dismiss it, but I can’t bring myself to do either.
Social fascination with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is nothing new, but its prevalence today borders on toxic. The amount of college students pursuing an undergraduate degree in liberal arts is decreasing rapidly. Older generations scoff at millennial illiteracy while laughing at those who seek language as an outlet for expression. The dichotomy of which ambitions are legitimate and which are fantastical is constantly excused under the guise of realism. Passion is irrelevant. Fulfillment is secondary. If you’re not willing to put yourself at the mercy of dignified professions, then you deserve whatever economical misery you encounter.
Some find beauty in this trope. There is something to be said for the starving artist, figuratively. There is the elusive dream that you can go crazy for, the odds that you can fight against. You can write until your hands bleed. You can swallow a tube of yellow paint like Van Gogh. You can cut your ear off. You can go insane and be romantic in the aftermath. You can sacrifice your sanity if you so please, as long as you don’t expect anything in return.
But this, of course, is something we glamorize through detachment, not something we want for our children. We don’t want to see them starving, literally, especially if we know they can do better. We don’t want literature to die, but we don’t want to be the ones saving it, and so we blame things like electronic books and free Internet articles, blame anything that alleviates responsibility. We, collectively, are afraid. We’re scared that we’ll dip our toe into the water and drown. We’re terrified that people will not mourn for us, but will say it was our fault for not being careful.
It’s a matter of survival. To put devotion first is risky; to be blamed for potential failures if they become reality is daunting. But I’m not writing to sympathize with the populous. I’m not writing because my high school newspaper was not only considered a mere privilege, but remains an unfunded creation, even with dozens of staff members. I don’t want someone to comment citing an obscure article meant to reassure me that I won’t be ridiculed for considering an English major. I’m writing because the amount of kids who will never get to consider these thoughts is alarming. I’m writing for the little girl who’s laughed at when she reads her short story in front of the class, for the little boy who stuffs poems in his pillowcase.
I’m luckier than most. I’ve had the fundamentals: the supportive writing group, the inspiring teacher, and the means for expression. Yet I’m still choking at the thought of saying I want to be an English major, holding my breath and waiting to be a punchline. I can’t listen to someone tell me that not going into STEM is a shame and be certain that they’re delusional. I can’t help but think that my past math and science teachers will hear of me and think that I squandered my potential. On bad days, I wish I could be like the classmates who trained themselves to love a subject because they were supposed to. I look back at the year when I briefly switched my favorite subject from English to science, for ten months in the sixth grade, and wonder how I lost that spark.
I wish I could live inside of the feeling I get when I figure out a math problem, but also the relief when the critical voice in my head is silenced and I’m talking about a quote in class. Sometimes I regret not working harder to care, for not looking up the majors on that list, but then my English teacher will tell me I use words like art, and I’ll remember that they are. They really are.