On college majors: Or, Why I will never be a commencement speaker

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.

27 thoughts on “On college majors: Or, Why I will never be a commencement speaker

  1. The problem is implicit in your piece is the number of requirements colleges mandate that a student take. There is very little room for discovery. Plus, universities are not interested, in my point of view, to develop a person intellectually or culturally. First must come profits to build more buildings and raise the salaries of the chancellor by investing in a BCS contending football team, and then education comes second.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this, it needs to be said repeatedly.

    In the UK this myth, that everything qualification maps onto a definite career, is perpetuated from the age of fourteen when you are required to make your GCSE choices. Careers advisors will work out the optimum combination of GCSEs (we take about ten) for whatever you almost arbitrarily decided was “what you wanted to do”. These days, judging by the fact that SAT tests at six-seven cause children to revise and succumb to exam related stress, I’d imagine this kind of thinking is present even lower down the National Curriculum. When talking to lay people, the most common question doing a humanities subject is “what are you going to do with that?” The whole attitude is flatly ridiculous.

  3. No one will give you a job because of your minor in Spanish, but if you are fluent, it could be the deal maker.

    But most of what you said is spot on.

  4. Rod, In theory, isn’t the point of required courses to get you to try out something in a field you otherwise might not have? I agree it’s probably not the best way to do that — and I’m impressed by the fact that Kalamazoo College recently abolished all gen-ed requirements. (You have to have a major, but other than that, you can take whatever you want.)

  5. Adam,

    Ideally, required courses, from the faculty point of view are to get students to take a course they might not otherwise have taken. But from the students’ point of view, the large number of requirements interfere with a students’ ability to discover themselves culturally and intellectually (ideally), and on a practical level, discourage the changing of majors or concentrations. I am thinking just as a recent graduate of a Masters program as well.

  6. Rod, I agree that that’s how students see them, and that’s why I think Kalamazoo’s new policy is such an interesting experiment. Anything that’s a “requirement” is going to be experienced as arbitrary and burdensome to some degree — if you just leave enough room in their schedule that they can take classes based on interest or curiosity, you have to think the majority of them will.

    For a master’s degree, I think there are competing concerns that make things a little awkward. If it’s a step toward a doctorate, you do want to make sure it’s working toward something concrete, but an MA can also serve as kind of a “capstone” to your bachelor’s program, where you finally get to really dig into stuff you want to dig into. Those cross-tensions, in my experience, mean that you can really, really tell the difference between a terminal MA student and someone in a PhD program — weirdly, the MA student will be more ambitious most of the time, and they might have an attitude that no single discipline can contain their uniquely cross-disciplinary genius.

  7. I concur with your statement about the “terminal MA” student and an MA student who realizes that the PhD life is for her. But let us not forget Masters students (especially in seminary) who go to grad school for the sake of self-discovery, and they represent a different category all together.

  8. I’ve sometimes wondered whether or not minors should be done away with or just significantly changed. My ug degree was in Literature (emphasis in Romanticism) with a minor in Interdisciplinary Honors, which was basically a “great books” program. I chose that minor because I would be able to read primary texts in phil and theo. This ended up to be a wise decision becuase it forced me to read much more philosophy than the philosophy majors actually read. And now, I’ve gone on to pursue a Ph.D in phil. While I don’t regret having minor, I do think that the idea of minor needs serious revision.

    A minor should be 6 (7) courses (18 credits) from a variety of disciplines that are chosen solely by the student. The student should be able to formulate a particular problem/question and take these 6 courses in order work on answering the problem or making the problem even more problematic. Then a 7th course would be required that looks something like thesis/ind. study/dir. research credit. For these 3 credits, the student would write a 30-45pg paper or develop some semester long, hands-on project that attempts to resolve their initial inquiry.

    For example, a sophmore named “Mark” has an interest in how various ideas throughout history have lead to environemental, racial, and gender oppression. He is particularly concerned with how the abuse of the earth often coicides with the oppression of certain people groups. Mark therefore decides to take courses in environmental science, colonialism/post-colonialism or race theory, feminism/gender studies, X, Y, and Z. He plans on, as a senior, developing a project that diagnosis and then helps alleviate the social problems in Chester PA, a city in which environmentel degradation, “almost forced” segregation, violence toward women, and the abuse of the lower class have all been continually practiced in a vary synthetic way. Social activism in one area will directly effect the norms/ills of another.

    This sort of minor would accomplish several things: (1) it would establish classroom experiences focused on a particular question that the student actually finds interesting, (2) help the student develop various skills of stating a problem and forming a critical response to that problem and those associated with the final project or paper, and (3) encourage the student to take a pro-active stance at being a member of the polis who strives for social change. It seems to me that such an approach is more holistic (more than just about a job and also more than just knowing of cultural artifacts/ideas/etc) in terms of for what we’re preparing our students.

  9. I’d agree with the proposition that required courses, on the whole, are a silly idea, but with one caveat: you can’t, reasonably, receive a sociology undergraduate degree without having taken at least one full course in each of social theory and research methods. The same would hold for the other social sciences, especially political science. Likewise, I can’t imagine anyone getting an undergraduate degree in linguistics without having taken at least half courses in phonetics, phonology and syntax. Required courses in this sense are not especially problematic and, in the case of the social sciences, the knowledge and skills are easily transferable between disciplines. One of the courses I teach, “Law and Regulation,” is a great course (at least I think so)–but for those students enrolled in the “business law” stream, they are required to take it. This is fundamentally silly. In reality, the course is more of a service course: I get a lot of students from political science, public affairs, economics, sociology, criminology and, yes, even students in the legal studies program–largely because it is one of the few occasions they’ll have where they can read Foucault and Agamben and talk seriously about shit.

  10. What’s the general American opinion on the kind of “pre-set track” educational system that was practiced in the Soviet Union (and I think still is the standard at the State schools in Russia)? You go to the university, say, to study math and you get a set courses/years schedule set by the university without any “electives” or “self-discovery” – it ends up being a very solid specialist education (we did, say, 5 different kinds of math in the first year, analytical geometry, math analysis etc etc), plus every semester ends with an intense week of orals. Humanities are, of course, part of that pre-set curriculum in math but the decision about your schedule is made by the university (so they choose which humanities), not by you.

    I used to think that the American system was so much better in terms of “exploring” but now I’m mostly thinking that we basically trust teenagers to organize their own educational development (yes, with help of “advisers” but who’s listening to them until they really need to get their shit together to graduate) – is that really more progressive? I suppose the larger question is whether college is where people are trained to become specialists in certain areas or it is some sort of over-priced daycare center for teenagers to discover themselves and have fun (they’ll get specialist training in their master’s programs)?

  11. That kind of system would make perfect sense if there was a central distribution system to match people up with jobs (i.e., a centrally planned economy). In the American system, as long as all the courses are at least rigorous within their own field, I’d say that random wandering might actually increase the odds of finding something they’ll find useful later, even in a vocational sense — the accounting class I took more or less at random has proven hugely useful for me in terms of supporting myself during grad school, for example. We can argue about whether the US university should be something else, but given what it actually is, I think indulging in free exploration is the best way to respond to the situation.

  12. I don’t think this necessarily implies a centrally planned economy as such, but I see your point. Certainly, studying pure mathematics does not really guarantee a certain pre-planned job placement, although, of course, there are clear predetermined tracks (if one were to choose among them). I think it certainly does require a kind of established set of professions (with strict qualification levels – something that labor movement have attempted to secure for a long time) that one can then train for (which in this sense guarantees that if one is a highly qualified accountant, one will not have to compete with those who might have taken a class or two of it, using your example).

    So the American system seems to be oriented – in its “free exploration” mode – toward creating a more flexible working force (one person is easily replaceable with another person) which is of course only great for those who are hiring and not always great for the labor force itself. Or am I seeing too much “capitalist manipulation” where there is none or little of it?

    Of course, you also have a large segment of professionals who are on more or less strict tracks (like pre-med or engineering) with not as much room for discovery as such.

  13. The U.S. definitely does have a hybrid system — there are a handful of professions with the clear standards you’re talking about, and then there’s everyone else. The problem I see is that so often “everyone else” acts as though their more or less arbitrarily-assembled collections of majors/minors is just as clear a path as the professional tracks and just as make or break. There’s no need for that.

    I agree with you that the flexibility issue is more favorable toward capitalists under the current regime, but I think it’s also possible to imagine a regime where that wouldn’t be the case — there’s nothing intrinsically anti-capitalist about everyone having a defined life-long career. (Also, I didn’t do any accounting work — the class just taught me to read standard financial disclosures, which proved to be a valuable skill in a particular context. A real accountant would’ve been vastly overqualified for what I was doing.)

    I don’t think the current system is necessarily the best, but I was just trying to think through how to make the best of it — and one way is by not pretending that it’s something it’s not. It may be good or bad that the American university is mainly not a place for a defined specialist education, outside certain professional tracks — but given that it isn’t, you’re not going to get the most benefit out of it by pretending it is.

  14. I do think a more strictly defined system has its benefits and there’s a big part of me that wishes I had the opportunity to participate in one — but American culture and institutions being what they are, I can’t help but think that the result of any attempt to develop something like that starting now would be unbelievably shitty and misguided.

  15. As someone who was sent an e-mail several days after graduating essentially inviting me to receive a minor in another field (German, and how this was ultimately finagled, I will never know, but there it is, on my transcript), I would find it hard to deny the frivolousness of minors as such. Now it turns out that this minor is the field in which I’m currently pursuing a PhD, which I think justifies Adam’s point about the value of “free exploration.” The fact that I got a minor for doing so was more or less the formalization of a coincidence.

    On the other hand, at the school where I received my BA (UMich, so not far from Kalamazoo College) they required us to fulfill a variety of prereqs for a liberal arts degree, so for example, courses in natural science, courses in social science, humanities, “independent studies,” etc. This ultimately forced me to take a course on climatology and the “origins of the universe,” which, while having been sufficiently dumbed down for humanities people in need of fulfilling the NS requirement for me to grapple with, was actually a really rewarding course and I still remember a lot of the material that was covered. Annoyingly, I also had to fulfill 2 credits worth of social science at the end, and was able to convince the Honors program to let me craft a course for myself that essentially involved reading Marx’s Capital. Had it not been for the prereq, this task would’ve seemed to daunting to do without some sort of institutional force behind it.

    So in some: I think minors should be eliminated as well, and I like this idea of tying them into honors thesis or leaving it up to “free exploration.” On the other hand, I think general university requirements (language requirements and courses in other disciplines) are a good thing, especially to force students who wouldn’t otherwise explore fields outside of their own, to do so. I would also be in favor of abolishing the extremely bizarre prereqs system for numerous majors. For example, in my undergraduate major (history), before officially beginning the “degree,” you had to first take a freshman seminar in one of four areas (US, Ancient/Classic, East-Asian, African). Since these courses tend to be terrible and uninformative, most history students avoid them and wait until their senior year to enroll for them. A professor whom I’m close friends with would always ask me about this perverse situation whenever we met (maybe he forgot we had spoken about it umpteen times before), but at the very least it confirmed that there was a departmental recognition of how silly the whole thing was.

  16. It seems to me that the idea of “forcing students to do X” is kind of a taboo in the American college experience, isn’t it? I mean you can’t stand up in the middle of a long gen-ed revamping discussion (which happen every so often almost everywhere – why? can’t they come up with a good model and stick with it) and say “I think we should force students to take a real physics course, not some water-down bullshit course for non-majors” – it’s always euphemism like “challenging” and “exploring” and “useful”.

    Speaking of euphemistic designations necessary to navigate the system, I thought I’d share my latest favorite – instead of saying that the institution is going to restructure (in itself a euphemism for “firing some people”) a program, you say that you are attempted to “revitalize a program” – I hope it means something even more sinister than “restructure” but I’ve only seen one email about it, so not much to work with…

  17. Thanks for this post, Adam. It’s actually helpful and convincing unlike far too many arguments I’ve recently read on what undergrads should and should not do. I am particularly fond of Kalamazoo’s move in removing gen. ed. reqs.

  18. Forcing students to do anything is a huge problem, because it seems that in American culture, anything compulsory is experienced as a meaningless “hoop” you have to “jump through,” an arbitrary burden with no motivation other than the joy of authoritarianism, etc. It’s no way to run a society, but “you go to war with the army you have, etc.”

  19. I remember a funny “multicultural” episode when I was younger – a non-American fellow I worked with asked me if the attendance of an event X was mandatory (I think he used the word “obligatory”), and when I told him that it was, he was strangely energized because in his estimation it wouldn’t have been were it not really important and therefore he must go, while “voluntary” attendance for him meant that it wasn’t as essential, otherwise the organizers would have required attendance. I found the logic odd at the time, but now that I think about it, I kind of like it.

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