Graphic by Sophie Zhang

“So, have you written a novel yet?”

“You must want to be a teacher.”

“What can you possibly do with that?”

As a literature major, these are some of the most common reactions I get whenever I tell people what I’m studying. The ridiculously derogatory stance on teaching notwithstanding, I have always found it fascinating – and honestly disturbing – how dumbfounded my classmates are when they hear I’ve decided to follow my passion. It’s not that they think my course load is “too easy;” most of them acknowledge and respect how much reading goes into a humanities major. Instead, it’s the same response that my peers in the performing, visual and literary arts know all too well: those classmates don’t know how to react to those of us who aren’t a part of the cult of compulsory.

So what is the cult of compulsory? As I see it, it’s the set career paths that parents invariably brag about to their friends, the type of careers that can guarantee stability and success for the rest of their children’s lives. For students at a competitive university, it’s the pressure to pursue majors like business, economics, law, medicine and computer science, in the hopes of a predictably comfortable adulthood.

But how deeply do NU’s ties to the cult of compulsory run? What is truth, what is fiction and how well can students distinguish between the two? After years of feeling implicit and explicit scorn for my so-called “unmarketable” fields of study, I wanted to reach out to the Northwestern community to see if my gut instincts were right.

• • • •

I first met School of Communication first-year Quillen Kai as they masterfully improvised a ballet sequence to a piece played by a student on PARC’s lounge piano. Kai is a dance major, planning on double-majoring in mathematics. But although they are pursuing their passions, it hasn't been an effortless path.

“I chose math because I tend to enjoy it and I want the option to work in academia,” Kai said. “But my grandmother [also] wanted me to double major in math and a natural or social science, because she doesn’t believe in dance as an academic discipline.”

Kai’s open admission about feeling external pressure to study a specific subject is far from unusual, as many of their peers expressed the same constraint. In order to gather more information I created a social media survey comprised of two yes-or-no questions, asking students, “Did you feel pressured into choosing a ‘secure’ field of study like economics, STEM, prelaw, or premed?” and “Do you feel that others stigmatize/judge your chosen major for its ‘impracticality?’”

The end data came from 95 students from across Northwestern, as well as other institutions including Georgetown University, Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Of those students, 38% said they felt coerced to pursue something other than their passion.

What’s more, a whopping 78% of humanities students surveyed agreed that they felt stigmatized for c their major. Among them is Weinberg first-year Hannah Zhou: although she is pursuing a dual degree in Psychology and Spanish, she said she experienced pressure to choose a different major.

“My mom wants me to do the [Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences] program or [get] a business certificate because she thinks my majors are too ‘soft,’” Zhou said. “They don’t have enough hard math, so [she thinks] it’ll be hard to find a job.”

One thing I didn’t poll students for but I’ve observed in others is also the internal pressure to follow a specific path. I do wonder how much of that internalized anxiety is created by outside sources and is slowly absorbed into your emotional bloodstream. I started receiving the message that STEM is the only way to succeed in life as early as elementary school. I vividly remember a moment in which my arrogant eighth grade math teacher warned the class that we’d each end up “living in a box under a bridge” if we didn’t prioritize math.

It's not hard to see how the buildup of fear-mongering messages can cause students who are already perfectionists to feel terrified of choosing the “wrong” path. Some of this confining mindset must come from internal insecurity: after all, many students still pursue more “impractical” passions even as they feel pushback from their community.

We’ve established the cult of compulsory’s presence, and the perspective of creatives who feel trapped by its set of guidelines. But what about students who are genuinely passionate about cult of compulsory subjects? What of those who want to study engineering, economics or chemistry purely out of interest? How do they end up choosing their paths, and how do they feel about students pursuing the same subjects for the sake of security?

McCormick second-year Justin Dong says that although he faced external pressure to choose a STEM major, he genuinely enjoys studying it.

“I want to work on sustainability at a hands-on level in order to impact the ways that we [affect] our environment rather than through policy, which doesn’t directly help optimize methods of pollution,” Dong said.

When asked about the intersection between the cult of compulsory and engineering, he provided a wonderfully nuanced response:

“I think [those students] are great for being able to stick in a field as challenging as engineering without the passion,” Dong said. “They have great perseverance and will get far in life. I do wonder if they will actually enjoy the work they’ll be doing for the rest of their life though.”

Aiden Zimney, a Weinberg first-year on the pre-med track, shared similar sentiments to Dong.

“I don’t hold it against [students who feel forced to take STEM majors]; biology and other premed paths can be a bit intensive,” Zimney said.

These like-minded responses surprised me. Being a perpetual cynic and a humanities student – where knowledge is constantly put to the test (“Oh you like Shakespeare? Name all of his plays”) – I assumed more people would be more judgmental toward their peers who chose success over satisfaction. But the sympathy toward the stressed-out students sharing these academic spaces evoked a camaraderie I hadn’t even considered. For students like Dong and Zimney, STEM is STEM; from outside of the cult of compulsory, they are at peace with those trapped within it.

• • • •

Growing up, I was lucky enough to live in a family that completely ignored the idea that only a select few career paths could bring you happiness. My mom, a successful interior designer and former marketing executive, went to art school. My dad, now working at a finance company, graduated from college with a film degree. They constantly encouraged me to do what I genuinely loved doing and to find as much success as I could with that skill set.

When I was younger, I thought nothing of being the child of two very artistic parents, other than vaguely understanding that I had a bizarrely in-depth knowledge of Impressionist painters for a five-year-old. But as I aged into high school and then college, I began to see how incredibly unique of a perspective I had. Here I was, the child of two creatives, with quantifiable proof that everything can turn out well even if you don’t follow the prescribed paths. Art school doesn’t lead to listlessness; STEM-less careers don’t careen you toward failure. More important than conformity are determination and ambition: they taught me that if you had the willpower to follow your dreams, you’d feel fulfilled and generate success along the way.

So, what are my thoughts on the cult of compulsory? On one hand, I completely understand the fear of the unknown. In a world of rapidly-rising inflation, climate-change-induced devastation and an uncertain socio-political future, stability is an incredibly viable end goal. It’s still very true that careers in medicine, law and engineering guarantee a pretty probable level of financial success. It makes sense that many people still angle toward careers that are reliably well-paying, out of a need for security rather than out of a genuine passion. To those who have no choice but to pursue that stability: I see you, and I see how you might have become trapped by a cult of compulsory major.

On the other hand, thanks to my background, I hate the idea that only a select dozen career paths can secure financial success and the stability that all of us need to feel. Is there a greater chance of unpredictability in my future, due to my choice of literature over the compulsory? Maybe. But I’m willing to take my chances if it means rejecting the stifling STEM restrictions with which I’ve always been at odds, while finding a path that truly embodies my skills.