One thing that has struck me the past couple years being around undergrads again is the level of stress that surrounds their majors. At Kalamazoo College, they tend to be overachievers and so want to have a triple major with a minor thrown in there (I wish I was kidding), but they’re just an extreme version of a general misunderstanding: thinking that there’s a really clear connection between college coursework and a career path.
In some cases, such as accounting or engineering or public school teaching, that makes perfect sense. In most cases, it really doesn’t. This is especially true in humanities fields. Even if you want to be an academic, there is a lot of fluidity among related (even distantly related) fields — I was an English major all the way in college, for example, and wound up with a PhD in theology. I was inspired to write this post by a friend who majored in political science and is now a professional wedding photographer.
The problem here may be the tunnel vision of school — at each stage, there’s a clear correspondence between your performance and the path you take and where you wind up on the next stage. But “real life” is unfortunately not the next level of school after college. Maybe it’d be nice if it were! The fact is, however, that we don’t live in a carefully regimented and planned world. Job placement is not a credentials-based meritocracy except perhaps in the very broadest terms (i.e., a college degree is advantageous for middle-class occupations).
Literally no one is going to give you a job because of your minor in Spanish. In fact, I think minors are stupid and should be abolished — and that in the meantime, students should just take classes they’re interested in outside their major requirements and that will almost always add up to some kind of minor all on its own. You might have a better shot if you actually speak Spanish, but you either speak Spanish or you don’t. Having a minor in Spanish is meaningless if you haven’t used it in three years and have forgotten most of it, for instance.
And even if there is a clear link between a degree and a job, there’s every possibility that your belief that you’ll easily find a job is wrong — every few years, another trendy field comes up where someone with the right degree can supposedly write their ticket (when I was heading to college, I’d say it was “physical therapy”), and then lo and behold there’s a huge glut of people in the field! The market works its magic once again, and you’re the unsaleable merchandise that they put into the locked Dumpsters.
The other side of this is that people’s paths into a career tend to be unpredictable and fluid — above all because you can’t know for sure you like a job before you do it. When you’re in college, getting that degree that will supposedly lock you into the path you think you know so much about, you’re not doing said job. It’s possible that Year One will suck so badly that you go to the temp agency. I know a guy who started off thinking he wanted to be a band teacher and then really didn’t like it, so he went back to his alma mater and worked admissions — and now he has a really successful career in that, because he did well in the work and enjoyed it. At no point is someone going to discover that his college degree in music education is inappropriate to his job and fire him.
College should prepare people for jobs, because jobs are a big part of life, but it should also prepare them for the rest of life — and it can. It can give you cultural capital that you can draw on for the rest of your life. It can provide you with ways of thinking about the world that will shape you for the rest of your life. It can help you build a foundation so that you can explore intellectually on your own with confidence. The resources are right there for the taking at virtually any non-vocational college.
The biggest problem with fetishizing which major will lead you into which career is that it potentially leads to a massive waste of time during a period when you have a unique opportunity to develop intellectually and culturally. Why should your future supply of cultural capital be determined by an ill-informed eighteen-year-old’s idea of what will lead him or her clearly into a career path they have no way of knowing if they’ll actually like even if, by some miracle, they have picked the right path to it? Why not just take classes you’re interested in and, after a while, see what you’re getting close to, major-wise?
I mean, seriously, look around you. They’re phasing out the concept of a “job” little by little anyway — you owe it to yourself, to your fellow temps, and to your online dating profile to at least be a halfway interesting person.