Should we have college majors at all?

As I’ve suggested before, One of the more startling pronouncements at the Rethinking Success conference last month came from Stanton Green at Monmouth University, in my memory pounding the table and saying that the college major was the worst thing to happen in higher education in the past 150 years.  I’ve thought for a while that a real negative of our current system is the emphasis we put on students selecting a major even before they get to college–a practice driven largely by the need of large professional programs to get students started on their careers from the first semester.

Jeff Seligo at the Chronicle has an interesting blog post this morning on what exactly students think about all the revolution and transformation talk that’s going on in higher ed.  He picks up on this question of the importance of the major, finding anecdotally at least that students are less convinced of the importance of the major than we are:

Majors don’t matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

via Did Anyone Ask the Students?, Part I – Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, getting rid of the college major would require a massive transformation of what it meant to be a college, not just a college student, and moving away from a narrowly defined research or professionally oriented definition of your major.  There’s no sign yet that we would be willing to do that or that prospective students would respond well to a college that did away with majors entirely.

Even Seligo seems inconsistent on this point since just prior to this point about the unimportance of majors, Seligo says we need to have much more intense levels of career preparation in college so that students can not waste time figuring out what they want to do and what they should major in.  How these two assertions get in paragraphs that sit next to each other, I’m not entirely sure, but it may just signal the confusion we have over recognizing that except in some very specific circumstances majors don’t matter as much as we think they do, but we still somehow can only imagine a college education as a preparation for a specific career.

Maybe if we would think of college as preparing students to blaze a trail for their own professional and personal journey instead of following a career path that is predetermined, we’d be able to relieve ourselves of the belief that students need to figure out what they are going to do with their lives when they are 17 and forever after their fates will be determined by a choice made in ignorance by students who cannot possibly know the kinds of people they will be or the opportunities they will have when they are 22, much less 32 or 52.

So I wonder whether readers of this blog think its possible to imagine a world of higher education in which majors don’t exist?

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15 thoughts on “Should we have college majors at all?

  1. I agree with the general notion of college being an environment for broadening students’ perspectives, connecting them with new ideas, and encouraging them to address the pressing problems of the world. On the other hand, I’m more than aware of the very pressing problem of leaving college and facing employers who may want even more specific college coursework and experience and having crushing student loan debt. This is a transformation colleges can (or should) make, or even a conversation they should be having, without the concentrated cooperation of both business and financial institutions that saddle students with debt obligations and no hope of finding sufficient income to meet them. I loved being an English major, but lately I find myself wishing I had opted, intead, for a technical education.

    • Thanks, Jon-no-h-Vaitl. I wonder if it would make a difference if we rethought our language of what is broad and deep. For instance, I think in Humanities we tend to think of ourselves as valuing “broad learning” over and against “narrow” professional schools. But as my post a couple of days ago suggests, there’s a way in which majors as they are currently constructed are just as professionalized in the liberal arts as anywhere else in the academy. That is, as an undergraduate I got very deep in English at the sacrifice of breadth in science, math, and technical fields (which wasn’t really so much at issue in Higher ed when I was an undergrad). What if we reconceived matters such that we would understand breadth to include things like better command of technical skills by including more in this area in general education and as an assumption of what would be included in a major (assuming we can’t get rid of majors in any conceivable scenario in the short term). We’re even thinking about reconceptualizing some of our humanities majors so developing more technical know-how would be required as part of the major curriculum. To some degree students can do that through getting minors, but minors are pursued almost purely on the basis of desire except in exceptional circumstances and are thus too hit and miss.

      None of this, of course, addresses the issue of cost directly, but we could do a better job of making sure all students were prepared with appropriate kinds of flexibility, including the flexibility to employ technical skills if their job requires it of them.

  2. I agree with Jon. While I’ve loved courses that I’ve taken that have been broad and intellectually satisfying, that isn’t what the job market is looking for right now.

    I’m thinking maybe a middle ground would be to expand internships tremendously. Maybe have the first two years of college be for broader education and exploration, and then the second two years could be for-credit apprenticeships in one’s chosen field. College graduates need to come out of school employable somewhere where there’s a realistic hope that they can pay off their debt.

    • Of course part of the question is how much emphasis to put on “right now”. Do we know what a degree in a specific major will be worth in five years. Unfortunately not. How do we prepare for the long haul in whatever major we choose might be something to consider

  3. We’ve been thinking about this at our place too. One of the problems with the major is that, pace Louis Menand, the major has never sat well with the core curriculum. Because the “basic” (my word) undergraduate experience was designed to keep students from entering professional study too soon, it was deliberately designed to be broad and integrative and non – professional. This is why, I think, we still have trouble making the major and the core work together. At best, a major may stipulate some of core courses, but you rarely see an idea or skill that is set up in the core pay off in the major. For the most part, the major and the core function as distinct experiences.

    (There are some ways of mitigating this dynamic. A good undergraduate research program can cross core – disciplinary boundaries. But these kinds of practices are not well integrated in most schools.)

    And as you note above, another problem with the majors is that it’s very difficult to keep them current, especially at small schools.

    I wonder if it would help to replace the idea of the “major” with something like “literacies,” i.e. “come to our school and we’ll give you literacy in digital technology, critical thinking, etc.” I think that makes a lot of sense educationally, but if so, we’ll have to train both students and employers to think differently about what a college degree means.

    Thanks for the insight! Back to lurking (and grading finals) 🙂

    • I think what you say about training employers is such a key issue. I know without doubt that I became a better thinker through my college studies, and I also know that makes me a better employee. But it’s hard to apply for a job and say, “I’m a good fit because I’m a good thinker.” It almost seems as though employers simultaneously value the intangible transferrable skills, but also undervalue them.

    • We really struggle with this issue a good bit. We make strong intentional statements about the general education program and the majors being mutually supportive and that majors must specifically build on general education learning objectives. But I think this tends to happen really generically when it happens, rather than intentionally.

  4. Pete, I get your point, but that seems to create a crop of generalists when the economy increasing moves toward specialists. I’m not sure how that benefits new graduates. The unemployment rate among new graduates is staggeringly high – about as high as people with no college degree at all. And they have substantial debt obligations on top of it all. I’m not saying I disagree with transforming the major system, but I think this is a matter of transforming the fundamentals of the economy as a whole, and not just the fundamentals of education.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the fundamentals of the system. See today’s post along these lines. I think the problem is not fundamentally majors but a raft of poor political, economic, and cultural decisions over the past 20 years. Re. specialization, I think the answer is “kind of”. The problem is the economy and the nature of jobs is shifting rapidly and from what we can tell will continue to shift rapidly for a long time to come. Thus you can’t guarantee that your specialization will be useful 5 years from now, and so there’s a strong need for people to graduate with adaptable skills. There’s a lot of talk about the need for T-shaped professionals, which roughly means you need a deep knowledge of something and a broad knowledge of many things. In the case of an English major, we ought to be forthright and say they need to think seriously about minoring in technical fields, science, or business. Thus developing basic technical skills that can be attractive to employers. The other thing to say here again, is that we put WAY too much emphasis on the major. The highest priority for employers right now in survey after survey is not your specific major but internships and other work experience. Top of the list every single time. We ought to be requiring internships of every major in the humanities, and perhaps more than one, making sure they develop a rich portfolio that will enable easier transitions in to the job market.

      • I agree completely about the internships. I didn’t understand the need while a student, but I immediately regretted not having one after graduation.

        As usual, you’ve thought about these matters far more than I, so I’ve reached the end of my arguments. Everything beyond now would just be BS. 🙂

      • You are too generous, Jon. Truthfully, a comment you made several years ago to me that the one class you would recommend English students take would be web design was something that really pushed my thinking down this road. I think you knew or were intuiting where more of are arriving. That our humanities students have superior skills in so many things, but they also need to broaden their abilities in other areas so they can apply those skills more effectively. Could be tech stuff for sure, but other things that go in other directions. Business classes wouldn’t hurt. But overwhelmingly the best thing you can do is get an internship. and more than one if possible

      • One way to move forward might be to make service – community learning a central aspect of the Humanities (and the Liberal Arts in general). Unlike internships, which are very valuable but belong more in a professional major, service learning works within either a core curriculum or a humanities major, and it has some of the same practical benefits as an internship.

        I know that a lot of schools use service learning to great effect–Messiah’s program looks particularly robust. But these courses are typically not taught within the Humanities program, and they are even more rarely embedded within a Humanities major.

        But there is no reason why that should be the case–especially since emphasizing service learning fits the mission of a Christian Liberal Arts college, but also because service learning helps Humanities acquire literacies and credentials that help them demonstrate that they are “T – shaped.”

        Another really pragmatic solution would be the widespread adoption of ePortfolios. Again, I know these are becoming very popular, and in some ways, I wonder if the portfolio won’t eventually supplant the degree itself. . . .

      • REally interesting ideas, Mark. I think you’re right that service learning can be helpful. Indeed, as can any kind of experiential learning, even traditional forms of undergraduate research. The trick partially is getting students to think about what kinds of experiences will be valuable for them and for others, and how those experiences translate in to a work environment. I also like the ePortfolio idea. We are moving in that direction, actually. Primarily through our Career center. I really think it would be great if it were more integrated.

  5. I understand the idea of a world without college majors – the old ways of choosing a major, graduating, then finding a job are far gone. Specialized fields like nursing, engineering, and project management are more common. Software engineering is a top pick, which you can learn more about in the fine book, Digital Work in an Analog World: Improving Software Engineering Through Applied Psychology by John R. Fox. This career is worth consideration and the author does a wonderful job at writing about the psychological aspects of the software engineering field. You can find the author’s website at: http://www.analogdevelopment.com/

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