Oberlin Blogs

A Major Conundrum

October 3, 2012

Simbarashe Runyowa ’15

So last year I had the opportunity to dabble in a lot of different subjects. I criss-crossed from Chemistry to Calculus to Anthropology to Economics to African American Studies and Politics. I read novels, performed acid base titrations and memorised obscure formulae. I grappled with Hobbes and Locke, solved integrals and balanced equations, all in the hopes of winnowing down the chaff of the curriculum to a fine grain from which I would then select just one (or two or three) of the finest strands of knowledge from which I would then weave the tapestry of the rest of my life.

That was a bizarre analogy, but you get the point. I've been trying to figure this major thing out. Now that I am in my sophomore year, I am going to HAVE to get round to it very soon. For me this will occur sooner than most because of the number of credits I transferred from high school.

One of the reasons why I did not choose to study in own country was because I wanted to postpone this now imminent decision as much as possible. In Zimbabwe, when you enter university, you enter directly into your major. This means that you must know your major before you apply to college--in fact you apply to a specific department within the university and not to the university in general. This is based on the subjects you would have "specialised" in in high school. Because I had specialised in the sciences, I was destined for a life in engineering, medicine or something of the sorts. (In Zimbabwe, "professional" degrees like law, medicine, business, etc. are entered into directly after high school.) Never mind that I enjoyed literature and language far more. In Zimbabwe, students are often encouraged, or rather strongly compelled, to study subjects that will lead them to supposedly lucrative careers in something "practical" like law or engineering or medicine. Had I remained in Zimbabwe, chances are I would be well on my way to qualifying as an engineer.

I have kind of used a crude method of elimination to get through all the options I theoretically thought I would like. At one point in my life I thought I wanted to major in Chemistry. I was obviously not thinking straight because the second I completed my first course in Chemistry was the second I buried any and all such persuasions. I found Chemistry to be stunningly dry. I say stunningly because in high school, Chemistry was without a doubt my favourite subject. Yet as I performed more and more titrations and sat through what seemed an eternal continuum of endless chatter about s-shaped orbitals during my first semester here I decided my patience with Chemistry had run its course. I needed stimulation beyond atomic bonds and methyl orange indicator.

And then there was Anthropology. If I was looking for a major suited to my interests, this was not going to be the one. Cultural Anthropology, I as soon discovered, was all about seeking to shock oneself by studying the most extraordinary (by Western dictates no doubt) aspects of foreign cultures (read: African "tribal" rituals and practices) and then convening every Monday Wednesday and Friday to deliberate on why these things should not actually provoke shock, because, we shouldn't, after all, be ethnocentric.

I tired almost instantly of the excessive focus on "African tribes" and their apparently "different" (primitive, untouched, in harmony with nature, etc) way of life. This is what really annoyed me about anthropology--there was something so incredibly debased about harping on and on about African "tribes" and their strangeness that perpetuated a sense of "otherness" that left me as an African extremely bewildered. It encouraged this long standing image of Africans as backward and as belonging to a paradigm of difference so obscure it warranted hours atop hours of study in Western lecture halls to even begin to make any sense. Africans in huts, Africans drinking blood, Africans doing all sorts of inexplicable customs and rituals. If that class was the only exposure one had to Africa one would come away with the impression that Africa was little else beyond a series of huts manned by half naked men performing odd rituals and ceremonies hourly.

It is for these above two subjects that I am extremely grateful to have discovered what will be my major, Politics. Last year I took Politics and Society and Introduction to American Politics. Both these classes exposed me to the study of politics in two very different contexts--one which I knew intimately and another to which I was entirely alien. It was a different way of thinking and analysis than the one I had been used to in high school. I loved my readings and enjoyed my work--I was actually stimulated. Stimulated in ways that had been so evidently lacking in my high school curriculum that had been filled to the brim with mathematics and science.

I wanted to delve into this new realm of knowledge with maximum devotion, but there was a nagging problem. What would my parents and family think of my new found passion? Hopes were high back home that after graduating from college I would quite obviously move right on to becoming a medical doctor. Stethoscopes were thought to be in in my future from virtually the end of primary school. After all, I had always been inclined to the sciences. But political science, what does one do with that? When I went home this summer, and broke the news of my defection to political science, alarm was immediately raised. Why did I all of a sudden want to become a politician? Like Mugabe*? And what does one do with a degree in Politics?

My rather meek response was that I want to work in international relations and economic development. Or something to do with Human Rights work. They seemed unconvinced. Human Rights, Politics,--it seemed unlike me, my uncle cautioned. Make sure you are not making a mistake, he warned with a sunken expression on his face.

Despite the barrage of familial warnings, I continue to press on with my love for political science, taking US Foreign Policy and African Economic Development this semester. I sometimes question my decisions, and am often doubtful of the strength of my own wisdom to make discerning choices. And not just any choice, but a fundamental, defining and irreversible (well, if I ever want to graduate on time) one.

I don't yet know if I'm making the right choice. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens.

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