Graduating students Photo courtesy of COD Newsroom

Controversial columnist Jeff Selingo made his own headline this week by suggesting that colleges eliminate majors. Why? Well, they’re so last century.

Since I suspect that I may know more about curricula than Selingo (I have certainly been teaching longer), I’ll be honest: I think that this is not a particularly helpful idea, and since he doesn’t offer any tangible benefits, I don’t see why anyone would bother.

Because I think his argument is well-intentioned but wrong, I’m going to quote his reasoning more extensively than I usually quote other sites to make sure that I’m not misrepresenting his views (you can read his full post at the link above). The following paragraphs are unabridged and unaltered:

“A proposal for a new university in Canada recently caught my eye for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that its students wouldn’t have majors. Instead, the students would be able to “distinguish themselves through practical and demonstrable skills in four areas of focus—technology, entrepreneurship/management, health professions, and creative industries.”

For most college students, the idea of a major is outdated in a 21st Century economy in a constant state of flux. College majors are for the most part an organizing function for the faculty of an institution who want to have departments for their academic disciplines.

Sure, students need a structured curriculum to follow in order to get the classes they need to take a licensing exam or apply to medical school, but most majors don’t have such specific requirements. Do you need to be an undergraduate business major to take the GMAT and apply to business school? No.

As high-school students tour campuses this summer or their older counterparts get ready to start college this fall, instead of asking them their major, we should ask them one simple question: What problems do you want to solve?

Okay. My shorter summary of this: “in a career-oriented university, there is no point in having a ‘major’ if you can demonstrate the requisite skills to become employed after graduation.” In other words, majors are solely preparatory for a future career or further education.

I find a number of these points troubling. We can start with the idea of a career-oriented university. This is my term, not Selingo’s. But he makes it pretty clear from his statement that majors are not helpful in a 21st-century economy. This is probably true, but that’s because education is not only career preparation. Yes, there are ‘practical’ degrees like nursing or accounting that directly lead to a career path. Selingo doesn’t seem to want to eliminate those, because they are ‘useful’; they are an end to themselves. So we’ll focus here on maligned majors like English or history.

Students who choose to major in a liberal-arts field are probably doing this for one of several reasons. (I have not seen studies on this, so it is admittedly speculation.) They might be preparing for a career in a different, but related field, such as education, public policy, or law; they might not really know what they want to do, so they choose something broad and applicable to many potential careers; or they might really be interested in the subject. Getting rid of the history or English major will not help any of these students. Those who are really interested will not know what is considered core knowledge in the field; those who are using the major as a stepping stone will also lack this curated knowledge. And even those who are confused will flounder.

Point two hinges on skills and employability. What are the “requisite skills” that students must demonstrate to become employed? Most of my students work full-time or nearly full-time, and they are certainly not unique in the post-secondary landscape. Let’s face the reality of 21st-century education: our students are already workers. They don’t need further skills to become employed, because they are employed already. And with youth underemployment at record levels, it is unlikely that those in non-practical majors are going to find their salary or career prospects improved by the BA. If the goal of education is to produce skilled workers, then they should be going to trade school, not college.

But let’s take a step even further back. Is the purpose of a major really career prep? No, and Selingo says as much; he thinks it’s solely about organization. That’s not really true, either. Most departments have multiple major options – I’ve given a link to my department’s choices as an example. And there is always the option of a combined (double) major, a major-minor, a major-double-minor, and probably others that I’m not thinking of. In other words, majors are not standing in the way of a student studying what s/he wants. So what is a major for? And shouldn’t we know what it does before we advocate eliminating it?

A major is a way of dividing the world of knowledge, yes. But it’s a necessary division, because as knowledge continues to grow, it becomes more and more impossible for a single person to know everything. Majors are, generally speaking, built around academic disciplines; disciplines, in turn, offer a single way to look at part of the world. This concept is difficult in the abstract, but pretty simple when you take an example. Let’s look at a pretty basic one: the atom.

Now, when you think “atom”, you probably think “physics”. And indeed, if you’re going to do research into atoms, you may find yourself in a physics department (or at least a branch of sciences). And in your science courses, you’ll learn about physical and chemical properties, mathematical models, and various ways to do research.

But you might also find yourself in a history department learning about the history of science. What was the impact of the discovery of atoms? What type of equipment and models did earlier researchers have at their disposal? What about the atom bomb? Did the average person in the 1940s or 1950s understand what was going on there? Did the scientists themselves? To do this type of research, you’ll need an entirely different set of skills: reading and analyzing documents, statistics, archival abilities, possibly foreign languages…

You may even find yourself in a classics department, studying Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which is the first known work that survives that mentions atoms (although Lucretius did not ‘discover’ atoms by any means). Or an English department, learning how people have written about atoms in fiction and poetry. Or an anthropology department, to study the potential biological basis to thinking. And so on.

In other words, ‘majors’ are a way of introducing people who haven’t really learned how to ask a question to the process of asking questions. And this is why Selingo’s alternative (asking “What problems do you want to solve?”) is misinformed, if not disingenuous.

In order to “solve” a problem, you must identify a root cause in order to determine a solution. To identify a cause, you need to be able to ask a question. Taking a bunch of classes with no real unifying theory behind them will never teach a student to ask a question; instead, it will bombard the student with a lot of information from a variety of different fields — like a giant distribution requirement.

This strikes me as exactly the opposite of what the ‘new education’ should be doing. It is certainly the opposite of the “skill development” that Selingo praises at the beginning. What is the value-added in this model?

It’s easy to see where the value-added in for Selingo, who has positioned himself as an education guru with multiple books and a speaking circuit. But one thing that college ought to teach is that what’s good for the individual isn’t necessarily good for the majority. So, Jeff, let’s leave the poor major alone.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.