“So…what are you going to do after you graduate?”
In all honesty, I am a little tired, and more than a bit terrified of this query.
One cannot help but feel a little tired past the sixty-fifth or so time being asked this same question, so I decided to lay it out in a post.
“What are you going to do after you graduate?”
For the benefit of friends who occasionally tune in to this blog, here’s just the answer, in case you wondered: unexpectedly, even (or perhaps, only) to myself –
I am taking up a Masters in History at the National University of Singapore, with a focus on Environmental History.
Here is a small little post to float some thoughts on this decision, because in all honesty, I am a little tired, and more than a bit terrified.
Heroes and History
Why so? Taking the road less travelled is often marketed and packaged as a very valiant and noble thing to do. In the society of the individual, the lone hero (or anti-hero, as it may be) striking out on her (or his) own is supposed to be the archetype we all aspire to. Narratives of any sort worth retelling are full of these models, in genres both fictional and non-fictional. From Frodo to Florence (Nightingale); from Harry Potter to Harry Lee (Kuan Yew); from Jesus to the Gautama to the Mahatma; from Icarus to Isabella (Bird), our myths and memories are replete with individuals who chose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Never underestimate the ability of one person to change the world because, it’s often proclaimed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
I know this. I knew all this, when I accepted the scholarship offered by NUS to continue in the Academy. Research, as I have discovered, is actually something I enjoy immensely. Digging through the archives and reading about how people once lived: how they once saw the world, how they once loved and lived and raged against the dying of the light – there is a vivid poetry to the stories and narratives of people beyond the Rankean obsession to ‘simply’ show things as they once were.
And the more I read the more I am convinced of my decision to take up this path. There is an emerging conviction to my decision to take this not-often-taken leap into (even) Higher Education.
And yet, it can be tiring trying to explain to people for whom history is an irrelevant, unaffordable luxury. I find myself spluttering to the civil, polite smiles of friends about to embark on careers as accountants, as civil servants, as marketing executives, as insurance agents, about why history is important, about why something that happened twenty, thirty years ago actually matters today. It’s easy to make a case for this in the classroom; sometimes historical context is so self-evidently important that it barely needs to be said. Try explaining, however, why a history of the Botanic Gardens should matter beyond a quaint curiosity to a risk management executive, and you tumble into an awkward tangle of words quite quickly. You can see the eyes glaze over, ever so imperceptibly. In the exciting, breakneck thrill that is the hunt of the daily Singaporean rat-race, who needs to know about a moment of anguish? I say this with no sarcasm or bitterness. I say it with the weariness of a history major who has tried far too many times to answer the “this one can eat or not” question or the “study history be teacher right???” question , both to others and to himself.
To both questions, I have witty, clever replies, both defensive and offensive. Four years in the university has gifted me with a list of countermeasures to deploy against annoying relatives and simplistic Singaporeans. You don’t go through FASS without developing a sharp, defensive and fierce pride for your major, and your faculty (No, we don’t merely exist to take local businesses global, in case you were wondering).
But as I emerge out of the protecting umbrella of the University, and contemplate the harsh light of so-called Adulthood (in truth just another socio-cultural capitalist construct, if you will), I cannot help but wonder if all that self-confident rhetoric about the Arts and Social Sciences is simply no more than that – rhetoric. I cannot help but wonder if I have simply taken my wisecracks too seriously. That maybe this is the time to bow down, to give in, and to finally accede to the “reality” and the “pragmatism” of Society, of the Working World.
Yes: I am wracked and wrecked by self-doubt. What if it’s all just rhetoric? What if really cannot eat one? What if all this “follow your dreams” drivel is simply a function of having read too many Buzzfeed, Artidote, self-help, New Age books which cynically make money from pretensions at inspiration (I.e. chase your dreams by buying my book which will tell you to chase your dreams)?
And so, in addition to the exhaustion of having to continually justify myself to myself, and to others – there is also a creeping terror. What does the future hold? Beyond the Masters, where will I go? Sometimes I envy the engineer, the banker, the doctor, the civil servant, the Army regular. They already know what they want. And even if they don’t, their advisors and recruitment officers have projected their futures for them: their Key Performance Indicators, their Expected Career Progressions; all the money they will make. And even if they haven’t, at least there’s the comfortable monthly salary to buy them everything else they like. Who needs to be so pure with their principles, when you can have a car, an iPhone? What good is the sublime beauty of a Singaporean sunset, if you could afford to fly First-class to see even more, even better, on another part of the planet?
You may have come here to this entry, hoping for an answer, or an amusingly bitter and sarcastic takedown of wheedling insurance salesmen or straitjacketed civil servants. After all, these are the easy targets I have occasionally poked. But today, I can offer none. After all, say what you want about the salesmen or the administrators – but they are the ones with the economic power to do as they please. What could the mediocre academic hope for, but to sneer at them and poke at the things these personalities say in public? Gaiman’s Morpheus once made a remark that has stayed in the more uncomfortable recesses of my mind since:
“It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.” | Neil Gaiman, The Sandman
This evening, these past few days, I cannot help but think hard on these words. Who knows what the future holds? You may have come to this entry, similarly afraid and tired of similar Questions.
But I can offer no solace today – only perhaps a shared sympathy and camaraderie for any individual brave and foolish enough to stand up against the creep of conformity; for any adventurer audacious enough to smile even in the face of the grimmest questions.
Perhaps that is why our greatest heroes have always been the challengers, the wilful, the persistent, the foolish, even the crucified. Perhaps that is why we all hail the underdogs, the new kids, the outlaws and the renegades
Perhaps because it is so difficult to walk that path alone.
Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.”
| Ursula K. Le Guin
“When setting out on a journey, do not seek advice from someone who has never left home” | Rumi
“It’s hard to tell the truth, when no one wants to listen, when no one really cares what’s going on…your spirit and your faith, they must be strong” | John Denver