Sunday, January 3, 2010

Do you even remember what you majored in?

I liked this piece by Kate Zernike in the New York Times last week, about that whole “What are you going to do with your degree?” issue. I liked it just as much eight months ago when Joan Garrett, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, took on the slow death of liberal arts at a more micro level, in the University of Tennessee system.

Maybe it is because my friends are Italian and philosophy professors, or maybe it is because I have a masters in international affairs that I never, ever “used” (except to name the fifteen former Soviet republics in under twenty seconds, a party trick I turn to after tying the cherry stem in a knot with my tongue fails to impress). Maybe it is because I went to college with religion majors who became doctors and film majors who became CEOs. Maybe it is because I can’t stand it when parents of 20-year-olds tell me, with a chuckle, that their child had wanted to major in journalism until they managed, using common sense and control of the checkbook, to turn them into business or speech pathology majors. (Not that I recommend a journalism major, or ever did even when there was such a thing as a journalism job, but that’s a post for another day.)

You can blame this attitude on my privileged, sort-of Ivy background. But I worry where we are headed. Do we really want to live in a world where there is nobody who knows a [boat]load about Yiddish poetry or Moorish architecture or Hannibal Hamlin?


  1. Ms. Pearlstein,

    It's not just that.

    Even out of self-interest, majoring in these things can be helpful. I'm not saying that this is all people should study, but if college is 32 or more courses, what's wrong with devoting a dozen or so to a major like that? There's room for enough of that other stuff, too.

    But what of the value of these majors?

    It's there. Few jobs really are built on the kind of particular knowledge that people learn in a major. Sure, some of the particular skills, but even that really misses the point. The question is not the knowledge or even the partcular skills you an learn in college. Rather, it's whether you are using college to make you **smarter.**

    Learning a discipline is one way to do that. And lots of majors are NOT built on disciplines. Are you learning how a group thinks (e.g. the idea that some sorts of arguments are stronger than others, some kinds of evidence are stonger than others, that there are preferred ways to communicate ideas, etc.). Making the mind stronger, that's not a bad thing, and it's something that will help people in their future careers, regardless of the field.

    The knowledge of today doesn't last. There are advances and shift, and classes are likely behind today's knowledge anyway. Students who are really concerned about the job after college should get relevant inernships, to gain today's knowledge AND work experience. No major is going to do that, anyway.

    A good liberal arts major will help students for a life time of thinking. A good vocational major might help a student get one job. Which do you want to spend all that money on?

  2. Yes, well put. Much of the content of my major (government) is long forgotten. But the discipline in thinking and writing and evaluating stays with me.

  3. I strongly agree with ceolaf. But I think it's important to hold up the value of Yiddish poetry, modern architecture, expressionist painting, idealist philosophy, African history, etc. for their own sake. These subjects do train the mind and prepare us for work, but they also have a beauty and importance that aren't merely utilitarian.

    I also question ceolaf's point that "the knowledge of today doesn't last." Much of it does, in fact, last. Otherwise, societies and cultures would be built on quicksand. I do support his/her broader point that knowledge expands and changes, and that we shouldn't make a fetish out of limited vocational domains.