As a double major in cinema studies and political science entering my third year, my unique combination earns me scornful looks from my Asian aunties, nods of approval from hipsters, and intrusive questions about my future plans from finance bros. 

This range of reactions that I receive seems to be tied to preconceived notions of ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ programs. According to a guide published by Indeed, ‘useful’ majors are those that lead to stable, high-paying jobs after graduation. In other words, if a degree does not yield a high return on investment, it is not worth pursuing. 

The undeniable utility of the ‘useful’ major

Admittedly, this was the mindset I, alongside other students, carried into university. Going into my first year, I was adamant about specializing in political science, not only because it is a subject I truly enjoy but because it is also a practical major that feeds into many safe pathways. The possible career fields are endless: journalism, academia, electoral politics, bureaucracy, or think tank research. 

The major’s utility seems to be a widespread appeal for students enrolled in the program. “Useful [majors] to me are anything that streamlines you into a job immediately after graduation,” said Isabel Hua, a fellow third-year political science and cinema studies double major, in an interview with The Varsity. “I decided in late high school that I was maybe going to do law school. I thought that [political science] would be a good pathway.”

Accordingly, I filled my schedule with every POL class available. However, this still left me with one remaining slot, and I spontaneously decided to fill it with CIN105 — Introduction to Film Study. 

Cinema studies, unfortunately, has an undeserved reputation as a nonrigorous study for slackers to cruise through university. Upon graduating, so the narrative goes, these students end up working mediocre and precarious jobs: fetching $7 lattes for a grouchy producer or freelance writing for B-grade publications. So I admittedly went in with low expectations and a prickish attitude. 

What I did not anticipate was that CIN105 would change my life. Taught that year by Associate Professor Corinn Columpar, the course’s spectrum was exceptionally rich. I absorbed texts from Marx and Althusser, learned all about the postcolonial history that influenced New African Cinema, and psychoanalyzed Howard Hawks, Steven Spielberg, and Alfred Hitchcock. By the end of the semester, I had learned so much from a discipline conventionally regarded as ‘useless.’

The intangible benefits of the ‘useless’ major

When Program Of Study (POSt) applications rolled around, I was confronted with a dilemma: should I continue with my initial specialty that is more beneficial to my material success or follow my heart? After researching the merits of cinema studies and googling the average salaries of graduates, all signs pointed to the ‘useful’ specialty. But no matter how many times I arrived at the conclusion and how much I reasoned with myself, I could not shake off the profound yearning to study cinema. 

This tumultuous experience made me reflect on why exactly the pressures I was feeling exist. What happened to feeling fulfilled with your education? What about enriching your mind — not just your wallet? And why does the prospect of a low-paying job necessarily mean that the knowledge you learn is then categorically ‘useless’? 

Our society’s emphasis on utility is a sad symptom of our economic reality. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” This ideology, with its obsession with productivity, has become so deeply entrenched into our culture that it has become the standard way of engaging with the world: what’s ‘useful’ is ‘high paying’ and what’s ‘valuable’ is ‘economically viable.’ Therefore, students no longer prioritize the academic value of their studies but prospective financial rewards instead. 

However, with Ontario’s inflation accelerating again, housing affordability reaching crisis levels, and increasing fears of AI threatening job availability, students have no choice but to factor in economics when making academic choices. It is now too expensive to indulge in something as ‘trivial’ as a passion; picking a fun and interesting major is a luxury not many can afford. Facing mounting economic pressures with a capitalist mentality, today’s students inevitably see university education as a strategic investment rather than a heartfelt experience.

But the issue with this type of thinking is obvious: measuring the value of a major in materialist terms dismisses all the valuable joys of learning. Ahead of my third year, I have managed to decouple myself from my former mindset, allowing me to fully appreciate the intangible benefits of cinema studies, such as new, dynamic ways of seeing and critical theory that I may have never discovered in my ‘useful’ specialty. Most importantly, I feel fulfilled and content — whereas, in an alternative universe, I’d be wistfully longing for “what could have been.” 

While cinema studies has been ‘useful’ to me in so many ways, I still worry about the real-world consequences of my decision. Unfortunately, we live in a cutthroat economy where it is impossible to escape the wrath of the job market, which is bleak for anyone not in STEM or a select few social sciences. When I think about the dwindling jobs in film — especially with the ongoing strikes of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — I occasionally wonder if I should have gone into politics and economics instead. Nonetheless, even during the pits of my anxiety, I’ve never once regretted my decision. 

In the midst of enrolment and preparing for the year, I’m sure many of you in your first year are panicking over what to do. You may be caught in a similar dilemma of going into ‘useful’ or ‘useless’ fields of study. To that end, I’ll leave you with a cheesy and clichéd statement that is nonetheless true: do what you love! 

Vicky Huang is a third-year student at Trinity College studying political science and cinema. She is the president of the Cinema Studies Student Union.