On choosing a major

I often advise students to get a major in what they’re interested in, with no reference to job training. This article makes that basic point in a particularly powerful way:

I came to college with few resources, but one of them was an understanding, however crude, of how I might use my opportunities there. This I began to develop because of my father, who had never been to college—in fact, he’d barely gotten out of high school. One night after dinner, he and I were sitting in our kitchen at 58 Clewley Road in Medford, Massachusetts, hatching plans about the rest of my life. I was about to go off to college, a feat no one in my family had accomplished in living memory. “I think I might want to be pre-law,” I told my father. I had no idea what being pre-law was. My father compressed his brow and blew twin streams of smoke, dragon-like, from his magnificent nose. “Do you want to be a lawyer?” he asked. My father had some experience with lawyers, and with policemen, too; he was not well-disposed toward either. “I’m not really sure,” I told him, “but lawyers make pretty good money, right?”

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog.

Since I started at Shimer College, I’ve had a related thought — if none of us is guaranteed a job anymore, if even the “sell-out” options such as law school are clearly no longer a sure bet (if they ever were), then suddenly it seems a lot more “practical” to get a thorough humanistic education than to get training in accounting or whatever. A trip through the Great Books will bring benefits no matter what happens, while the four years you spent learning to be an accountant are going to be a total loss if you don’t get an accounting job.

15 thoughts on “On choosing a major

  1. And perhaps the same can be said for graduate education. Because “the saying is sure and worthy of acceptance” that nobody is guaranteed a tenure-track professorship. There are a whole lot of people who go into law, medicine, computers (back in the day), etc… with the idea that whatever happens, at least they’ll come out of it with a job. It’s a delaying action, like going music ed so that if your performance career doesn’t pan out, at least you can always teach. Or like getting your M.Div. as a backstop for your academic aspirations. And likewise, getting a doctorate used to mean that you could get a professorship. And all of this, as pretense, is laughable. We’ve lost that sense behind vocation, that you have a calling to your profession. That it calls to you, that you are gifted towards it. I hear Edmundson saying, “become who you are — it’s the best thing you can possibly get out of this process.”

    Now, at the same time, I got a music BA — without the ed because I wasn’t called to it — and then a theology MA — without the “Div.” because I wasn’t called to it — and now I’m finally getting a professional degree to a profession in which I feel called. The education has come in handy, but without my wife, I’d have died of poverty ten years ago. So there’s got to be *some* pragmatism there!

  2. Oh, can I play? Four words: Associates and Certificate programs. Vocational education is always better done fast and integrated with practice. Get ’em out and working while they learn.

  3. Once when making fun of the excessive number of majors and minors Kalamazoo students claim they need, I appended “and I’m getting my welding certificate” to the end of the list — but now I honestly think that might not be a bad idea. Doing an associates to become an electrician would give you a flexible and lucrative way to work your way through college!

  4. I’ve always wanted to know how to weld. It would probably the be the first thing I did if my current career plans fell through dramatically.

  5. I was going to link to this anyway, but the way the comments have gone, it’s even more apropos: “Shop Class As Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford. Perhaps the pound-for-pound worst book title ever, but lots of good points concerning education from the opposite angle.

    I have a dual BA in musicology and philosophy, an MA in philosophy and given how disastrous things have gone for me professionally, I’m currently pursuing an MS in construction management. Like Jason said above, dual major in something you “feel called to” and something employable is the way to go as far as I’m concerned. If I could do it over again, I would have doubled in phil and construction management.

  6. Isn’t Adam’s point, though, that the idea of an “employable” major is increasingly dubious? I suspect this may include vocational schools, too, the smiling HVAC engineers on those for-profit college ads notwithstanding.

  7. With nearly 10% headline unemployment, it does seem dubious that any field will have a lot of jobs — and any “up and coming” field will doubtless soon be oversupplied. (When I was starting college, for example, the hot field was physical therapy, and it quickly became oversaturated.)

  8. For some years I’ve been a great fan of the “I might get hit by a bus or a baseball bat or a meteor and killed sometime in the next five years” approach to choosing a major.

  9. A colleague mentioned results of some kind of study of students who had got undergraduate degrees from our institution. The arts students hadn’t expected to get jobs relevant to their degrees, hadn’t got them, and were pretty cheerful. The biology students had expected to get jobs, hadn’t got them, and were bitter.

  10. I dualed in math, computer science, and philosophy … and am now in the least lucrative field. Guess which? My undergraduate alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology, requires (virtual) dual-specialization of philosophy majors. I think it quite wise.

    That said, is shop class as soul-craft seems more aimed at middle-class suburbanites.

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