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The value of the humanities

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University of Virginia

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The value of the humanities

On why it's not a waste for me to major in English

Chelsea Li

2.18.18

Coming into college, I planned to be a science major. I loved science - discovering the way the world worked and how to apply it, whether that was building a robot or growing cells to make a new heart. And indeed, I am now working in a Biomedical Engineering laboratory on stem cell research, learning how to code a bubble shooter game with Student Game Design, and taking Organic Chemistry 2. When I grow up, I want to do something related to science, be that as a doctor, a researcher, an engineer/programmer, or even as part of a biotechnology startup firm.

I enjoyed my science classes, from Cell Biology to Physics, learning new protein pathways and the formulas for multiple forces on an object. But there was something missing. On a whim and because of course requirements, I took an English class and a Sociology class. With such a strong focus on reading and discussion, I wasn't sure if I would like it. As you can guess from the title, I was blown away. I found myself looking forward to the readings that, while not necessarily the most scientifically backed, peered into the human mind and tried to explain our unpredictable inconsistencies in the way we thought and lived. Passionately arguing over an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or about why the institution of marriage was dying out was exhilarating.

I talk to my friends about majoring in English (arguably UVA's highest ranked department). Most are rightfully taken aback, surprised that I, the nerdy scientist, would pursue such a path, especially one that leads to nowhere but as a "barista at Starbucks." But I think there is nothing more valuable that I can choose to study here. English isn't just reading books and writing essays; it's a way of thinking, and a way of life. It's about being open-minded, presenting your arguments, and engaging in bidirectional conversation with the people around you. It's about being treated as an equal, whether you're a professor that has been teaching for over fifty years or an undergraduate taking their first English class. Everyone can bring their own thoughts and contribute something new.

What has impacted me the most is learning the thoughts and stories of people from all across the spectrum and realizing their lives are as complex as my own. It's about being able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and with complete empathy. But most importantly, the humanities are about wanting to make a difference in the myriad of existences we are surrounded by.

The sciences teach me what to do, but the humanities? They teach me why I do it. My English major will make me a better doctor/researcher/engineer/consultant/whatever I end up being, because it will teach me an alternative way of thinking and will drive me to apply these skills to help the world around me. But the most important reason I study the humanities? It makes me a better human.