Major Trouble

  • By Jenny Xiao
  • yxiao15@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013

Last year, when someone would ask me what I was majoring in, I would proudly say, “Economics and music.” My answer was generally received with a pleasantly surprised smile and some further inquiries about my interests. I would talk enthusiastically about composing a character piece mimicking Schubert or rant about the downsides of having perfect pitch. “Econ is for money, music is for life,” is how I would conclude my spiel. Partly due to peer pressure in Concert Choir—where almost everyone is a music major—and partly due to desire to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a composer, I decided to pursue music, even if only for the sake of learning more about it. Isn’t that what liberal arts is all about: learning about things that don’t matter, things that won’t necessarily result in a career? At least that was my interpretation. I relied on music to justify my liberal arts education.

It wasn’t until the summer that anxiety kicked in. The fact that I was surrounded by serious people suited up in an urban setting hit me right in the face. I started thinking—worrying—about life after Amherst. And the more I considered my strengths and options, the further I drifted away from my determination in majoring in music. I realized that if I pursue music as a career, I would not only lose a precious hobby that is my primary stress reliever, but also likely lead a life of modest means. Perhaps I would perform as an underground artist, working three day jobs to get by.

The pressure of pursuing music was becoming stressful, and I increasingly questioned whether I should push myself to take music classes to finish a major that was most likely not going to serve me beyond my Amherst years. By the beginning of junior year, I had completely altered my plan. Halfway through my first upper-level math course of this semester, I decided to become a mathematics major. I found that I actually enjoy writing proofs.

Initially, I resented myself for the change of plan. I felt both relieved and guilty. Math is obviously a more marketable major than music. I also felt secure because math is a STEM major, which means that I would have more research and career opportunities. At the same time, I was guilty because this meant that I’m now an econ and math double major, a combination that some people at Amherst College would turn their nose at. “It’s not liberal artsy enough,” my inner voice started nagging. Previously, I had a seemingly reliable litmus test for a liberal arts education: the more unpractical the education, the better. By giving up my music major, I felt like I was compromising that education for the sake of making myself more appealing to future employers.

Then I realized the flaw of this logic: Who said that music is more liberal artsy than math? As a subject, math is largely underrated and overlooked, and it is often seen as tool for other subjects such as economics or biology. Here at Amherst, conversations about math are much more rare than conversations about philosophy or literature. I don’t think that this preference for humanities over math is exclusive to Amherst; I’m sure a majority of liberal arts colleges share a similar sentiment. Because quantitative classes are considered to be more useful and more applicable to the real world, they are considered to be less liberal artsy.

I often wonder about how I made my decision. I think my reasoning partly derived from my own obsession with defining what constitutes a liberal arts education, but my surroundings also contributed to my major-related anxieties. “Jeez, I’m so glad I never have to take math again,” is a statement I often hear getting thrown around on campus. At Amherst, it is much more socially acceptable to express frustration about hardcore science and math courses than it is to express passion and enthusiasm for these subjects. Interestingly, at bigger universities, that dynamic is completely reversed. 

It took me a while to parse my misconceptions about the liberal arts education. Although many humanities subjects do not have clear real-world applications, the critical thinking skills developed through close reading sessions and classroom discussions are crucial for career development. To say that only quantitative classes are useful is not valid.

Additionally, math shouldn’t be regarded as merely a tool for other subjects. Math is a discipline that trains the mind to be logical and rigorous, which is just as fundamental to a liberal arts education as any other skill from a humanities class. I also began to confront my utilitarian approach to what constitutes a liberal arts education. Amherst invests a great deal in its students with the hope that we will become creative leaders of the future. I realized that not majoring in music doesn’t exclude me from the music scene on campus. I still participate in vocal performances, as do many other non-music majors. In truth, this is what is unique to the liberal arts education: No single major is restricted to itself, and everybody is encouraged to explore other interests. A liberal arts education does not concern itself with immediate employment or specialization; rather, it focuses on providing each student with a well-rounded education. In this sense, math is very much a component of the full package.

I don’t think that my understanding of liberal arts is universally shared among the student body. Once in a while, I overhear conversations of people wanting to take quantitative classes simply because they want to increase their chances of getting employed, and I don’t necessarily blame them. To say that I declared my math major without thinking about my future would certainly be untrue. But I also believe in the pure beauty of math. Valuing math only for its job-placement potential overlooks much of the actual value of mathematics. The mathematics department at Amherst does a great job of encouraging non-majors to gain useful skills by taking its courses. We need to do more to clarify stigmas surrounding Amherst’s quantitative classes. We offer one of the nation’s best liberal arts educations, yet sometimes we fail to liberate ourselves from unfounded judgments about what that education entails.