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In defense of a supposedly impractical major

For the entire day, he was all I could think of. Nervous thoughts rushed through my mind just as I rushed through my day. They pried me away from efficiency and toward a state of panic, distracting me from every task. How should I act? What should I wear? What would he say to me? What should I ask him? (I’m always terrible at asking questions.) Excitement and anxiety fueled this endless torrent.

No, it wasn’t a date. Or maybe you could say it was a group date. It was a semi-intimate dinner with the CEO of Buzzfeed, Jon Steinberg ’99, that had quietly unleashed a flurry of butterflies in my stomach. Out of a number of events arranged by Whig-Clio, I felt that this one was particularly relevant, as Buzzfeed was responsible for a number of hours spent not doing homework and not sleeping. Here I was again, similarly distracted.

But as we sat down to eat, a number of things he said made me uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong — I was certainly inspired by some of his statements. When he told us that we could “outwork anybody,” and that our efforts could trump true genius no matter how smart our peers were, I felt a sense of hope (okay, cockeyed optimism, but I still chose to savor it). Or when Steinberg stated, “If you want to do something, now is the best time” with regard to entrepreneurial attempts and other save-the-world ventures, I felt that same warm fuzzy idealism in my heart. What a guy, I thought.

But other things he said contradicted those feelings.

Steinberg, as you may know, majored in the Wilson School. I plan to do so as well. When asked by one of my peers how he benefitted from the department, he grappled for a reason, and ultimately said that he hadn’t. I exchanged nervous glances with the five other Woody Woo majors in the room, and we all chuckled while our souls (yes, we have souls) burst into flames.

It seemed that Steinberg’s primary source of disappointment in the Wilson School rested in his unsuccessful attempts to get thesis funding. But as he continued to explain his resentment, it seemed he also felt that the skills he obtained from the concentration were not relevant to the real world, ironically enough. Steinberg said he wished he had majored in economics or had gotten more coding experience in college. All of these were thoughts I had entertained before, but now were coming back to haunt me in a very tangible and urgent form.

At the end of Steinberg’s lecture (which followed the dinner), he asked anyone who knew how to code or who was “good at math” to come see him. “We need you,” he stated. My heart sank. I felt like I had been told that nothing I was doing was important, that I would be stuck with a useless — or nonexistent? —  skill set after college that would be irrelevant and archaic in an advancing world, ripe with the fruits of technology.

As I walked home, Steinberg’s perspective confused me even more. It angered me that he was essentially turning his back on his own department and academic context. He had made it this far, hadn’t he? And couldn’t at least part of that be attributed to what he learned in the Wilson School? What about perspectives on pressing international issues and news, which the company has been incorporating into its output? Learning about cross-cultural dynamics and socioeconomic trends to make his site appeal to a broad viewer base?

Steinberg might have chosen to prioritize the world’s computer science and econ majors as the artists of the blank technological canvas that is the modern world, but I am majoring in the Wilson School because I want to learn about the issues and debates that fill that world. I don’t believe that my major is as much of a limiting factor in the real world as Steinberg made it out to be. In fact, I really don’t think that my major is going to affect what I do in life — the skills I pick up along the way are more important. Do I know about domestic and international issues? Do I know how to support my arguments in a professional setting? Do I know how to perform basic data analysis?

Just because he felt he didn’t benefit from Woody Woo doesn’t mean no one can. Although Buzzfeed is certainly a prestigious company, getting a job at Buzzfeed is not the same as getting a job in general. The skills that Steinberg felt he needed to build a successful career are not universal keys to surviving in the real world.

I think I’ll stick to Woody Woo, take some of Steinberg’s more optimistic advice and go get the skills I need if I feel like I’m really behind the times. Maybe I’ll be able to outwork the others, or maybe I’ll be able to come up with something else entirely.

Prianka Misra is a sophomore from Castro Valley, Calif.  She can be reached at pmisra@princeton.edu.

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