Pepperdine University

Major Myths, Revisited

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|March 14, 2021|6 Minutes

A recent article by Verónica Leyva takes issue with students paying undue attention to their choice of majors when researching colleges. In Major Myths, Busted, she argues instead for approaching the college search with an open mind, agnostic about any one path towards a degree. There are, after all, countless pathways to many careers, and colleges tend to be more interested in students who are motivated to learn than those narrowly focused on a major.

I think that Ms. Leyva’s arguments are absolutely sound and we should encourage high school students to identify their academic interest – a desire to engage with certain ideas or questions or modes of learning – and not simply a prospective major – an academic basket of courses set by faculty in the field to enable students to reach towards mastery in one discipline.

To the reasons why high school students should not fixate only on their prospective major, I would add the fact that they will likely change their minds anyway! Little point to researching only colleges with outstanding programs in Astrophysics if in the end you might opt to major in Anthropology instead! (I remember fondly a freshman advisee of mine at Brown who came set on studying Physics, before cycling through Philosophy and graduating as a Music major!) As Homer Simpson reminded Lisa, there is a time and a place for everything and it is called college – a time to try new ideas well beyond the narrow prescriptions of high school and challenge your mind beyond your own expectations. And most high school students are so trained to the narrow “boxes” of five core academic disciplines that they have little concept of how those translate into the 100 or more majors of a typical liberal arts university anyway!

There are good reasons for our current pushback against the tyranny of the major in students’ perception of where they should go to college and why. Many counselors have sat with students who, in months past, had lit up as they talked about their passion for the study of history or for the exploration of their favorite solar system. But then college admission comes into play, and suddenly they fixate on applying for the hot major du jour – computer science, chemical engineering, data science. This in spite of the work of economists like Doug Weber, who has shown that while right out of college STEM fields might yield more professional success, they do not inevitably pay better when measured by lifetime earnings.

And yet, having said all this, after twenty years as a college and academic advisor, I have also come to doubt how far we should go in the opposite direction, towards encouraging high school students to ditch all consideration of prospective majors. In part, this is because of the admission process itself (as I noted in a recent post). Majors are the bureaucratic building blocks of an undergraduate degree. Even the majority of liberal arts colleges that allow students to defer declaring a major for a year or two, still ask about intended majors in their applications. A college where the Environmental Studies department has just expanded might well want to make sure that those professors have a gratifyingly large number of prospective majors; and a college where the Classics faculty takes an interest in admission, might well take note of exceptional young Latin scholars.

Moreover, having students think about prospective majors is not at odds with having them identify exciting intellectual reasons for going to college. In fact, seeing how their intellectual interests connect with a particular academic discipline can help give teenagers a scaffolding with which to explore the things they find curious and exciting. I remember, when I first went to university eons ago, how validating it was to realize that people who were experts in the things I was curious about had thought those mattered enough to gather a corpus of knowledge about them and call it a History major! The practitioners of an academic discipline also use their own linguistic conventions to express their questions and concerns – and how liberating for young people to gain insight into that language in order to express their own ideas!

Ultimately though, my point is simply that an American liberal arts education is an extraordinary way of thinking about one’s learning, and students should look at the exciting range of possibilities it offers them, rather than cast around for a narrow academic box to climb into. But college is also not summer camp, and a conversation about majors might be another way to encourage high school students to view their learning with an equally important and exciting search for rigor and intellectual depth.