Selecting a major: what is close to your nature, what you can do

I have heard many of my friends say that many students nowadays choose their departments with a short-sightedness and a tendency toward utilitarianism from the viewpoint of their teachers. Those who are more talented go to medical engineering, and only go into the practical aspects, but do not choose the basic disciplines. For example, in medicine, there are many candidates in internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics, and gynecology, but few young people take basic subjects such as biochemistry and pathology, which makes me feel that today’s youth are short-sighted and look at their future with myopic glasses. The first thing I would like to talk about today is to contribute to you the experience of our older generation in choosing departments. Let me tell you a story.

My brother came from the eastern provinces to Shanghai to see me off. When he was leaving, he said to me that our family had long been destroyed and had fallen into ruin, and that you should study something useful abroad to help revive the family business and revive the family. I said yes, the ship is about to sail.

At that time, there were seventy foreign students who went to America with me, and they went to various universities. At that time, Cornell University had the best agricultural school in the United States, so I decided to go in and study the science of agriculture, so that I could make some contribution to the country and society.

There were two reasons for entering UConn at that time: First, UConn had the best agricultural school at that time, and it did not charge tuition, and I could get a monthly stipend of eighty dollars; as I said earlier, my family had broken up and my mother was waiting for support, and I was not married at that time, so I was frugal, so I could take some of the money back to support my family. On the other hand, eighty percent of our people are farmers, and learning the science of agriculture in the future might be beneficial to the country.

The first week after I entered school, I suddenly received a letter from the farm internship department, asking me to report to school. …… studied for one year and did well, scoring over 85 in all my homework. I was able to take two more credits in the second year, so I took fruit growing, i.e. apple growing.

There was a morning lecture and an afternoon internship. In the afternoon, there were 30 apples of various colors, red, yellow, and green on the table. …… There were round, long, oval, and square shapes. How long is the tip of each apple? What is the color of the flower? Is the flesh sweet or sour? Is it soft or hard? It took two hours. After half an hour, I couldn’t get one, I was sweating, really sweating in winter. Looked up, ah! No, those American students are done and ran away, take the apples back to eat. They do not need to cut open, because they are more familiar with, check the back of the booklet common nouns can determine the scientific name, in their is very simple. I only got half of it, and half of it was wrong again.

I went back and asked myself what is the use of learning this? If I had spent one night to memorize the names with my energy and memory, I could have memorized more than 400 names for the exam. But what’s the use of thinking about it? Those apples were not available in Yantai, Qingdao, or Anhui. …… I thought that the science of agriculture was useless, so I decided to change my career, because it was the first year of the Republic of China, and the country was in the middle of a revolution.

Then, what should be the criteria for changing departments? According to one’s own interest? Or did it depend on the needs of society? When I was young, there was a poem in my Diary of Study Abroad, which I can’t recite even now. What should I use as a criterion for choosing classes? To listen to my brother? To see the needs of the country? Or was it based on myself? There are only two criteria: one is “me”; the other is “society”, to see what society needs? What does the country need? What does modern China need? But this criterion – society needs all the three hundred and sixty trades, and now we can say three thousand and six hundred trades, from Nobel laureates to toilet repairers, society needs them all, so society’s criterion does not matter. Therefore, when deciding what to do, we have to follow our own interests – that is, what is close to our nature and what we can do. What are my interests? What are the things that are similar to my nature? Ask me what I can do. What am I interested in? I then transferred to the College of Arts and Letters according to this criterion. But there was another difficulty. The liberal arts had to be paid for, and withdrawing from KU midway would cost me the tuition fees of the previous two years, so I couldn’t care less about that.

After the help of four friends, I was able to reduce the fee from eighty to thirty-five dollars, and finally got my wish. In the College of Arts and Letters, philosophy was the main course, with English literature, economics and political science as the secondary courses. Later, he took philosophy as the main subject, with economic theory and English literature as sub subjects. After I went to Columbia University, I still took philosophy as the main subject, with political theory and English literature as subs. I am now sixty-eight years old, and I don’t know what I am studying when people ask me what I am studying. I am also interested in literature, and I have made some small contributions to the vernacular.

As I said earlier, young people nowadays tend to be too realistic and do not choose their courses based on what they can do and what they can do. For example, if a person with a genius for poetry does not enter the Chinese department to study poetry, but goes to medical school to study surgery, then the College of Arts and Letters will lose a first-class poet, while the country has added a third-, fourth-, or even fifth-rate rice bucket surgeon.

Don’t take the volunteer you fill in at the beginning as the final decision, but only as a temporary direction. Be in the first year of college, touching the east and touching the west blindly. Do not have short-sightedness. Young people of 18 or 19 years old are still not capable of deciding their own future and career. Into the first year after college everywhere to touch, to see, adventure to go, do not know what I prefer to learn.

For example, I was not good at math in middle school, but now I want to learn it, because I was not interested in it in middle school, maybe because the teacher was not good. Now go and listen to the best professor’s lecture, maybe it will raise your interest. A good teacher will guide you in a good direction, and it is not too late for the first or second year, or even the third year, as long as you follow your own “nature’s proximity and ability” to do it. These are the words of Zhang Xue Cheng, a great Confucian of the Qing Dynasty.

The choice of a subject is the choice of a career for a university student. I am now sixty-eight years old, and I don’t know what I am studying. I hope you won’t follow my example of being an old and incompetent person. Do not set your life by the one wish you fill in the seventy-two volunteers, which is still undecided, even for two or three years of college. You have so many good professors and talents to guide you in this complete university, so take advantage of this opportunity.

If your father, mother, brother, or friend at home wants you to be a lawyer or a doctor, don’t worry about them, don’t listen to them, just follow your own interests. When I think of the time when my brother wanted me to study mining and railroad construction, I didn’t listen to him either. I changed myself to become an old, unprofitable person. Later my brother did not say anything. Just mind my own business, others do not care about him. If you continue to study according to your “nature and ability”, your future contribution to the country may be much greater than the discipline you have chosen blindly or passively, and your future will be unlimited. There is no limit to their future. Class is over! Class is over! Thank you all.

(This is a speech given by Hu Shih at NTU School of Law in June 1958, originally published in Taipei University News on June 19, 1958, with some deletions)