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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What should I major in?

A column in the Columbia University newspaper caught my eye. A woman was try to explain to her father why she had chosen the major she chose.

She, like most college students, thinks she is making an important life choice here. She is, but she is confused about which choice she is making.

Why do college have majors? If you understand that, then the decision will become clear. All universities in the United States, even those that don’t claim to be, are modeled after the concept of the research university. This means that the professors at the school are primarily interested in research. Not only that, research dominates their lives so much that teaching is very low on their priority list. More importantly, when they teach, they are teaching what are basically research subjects.

So, when a psychology major wants to learn about people’s minds he or she winds up learning how to run experiments and how to do statistics because that is what researchers in psychology do.. When a computer science major wants to learn to become a proficient programmer they wind up learning mathematical theories connected with programming because that is what their professors research.

The major exists as a way of routing students on one track of becoming researchers. There are, of course, a few problems with this model. For one, most students do not want to become researchers. For another, those that do want to pursue PhDs soon realize that they could have majored in most anything and been accepted into a PhD program of their choice if they did well enough in college.

Students major in biology or chemistry because they want to became doctors (a field that actually requires next to none of the biology or chemistry that one learns in college.) They major in economies when they want to became business people because, at schools like Colombia, there is no business major but there are plenty of economists who do research.

In fact the concept of major is meant to move students into advanced courses in a department, namely the research seminars, which are really all the faculty actually want to teach anyhow.

When my son asked me what he should major in (he was also at Columbia) I told him “subways.” I did that because he loved subways. Now of course there is no subway major at Columbia, or anywhere else. I told him to pick and choose courses that related to his main interest and that the major he wound up in would not matter at all to anyone.

And this is my advice to students in all colleges. The major requirement is not there to serve your needs, so serve your own. Pick any courses that interests you as you attempt to determine a plan for your life. It really doesn’t matter. If your college offers real training in areas that lead to jobs and you think you might want one of those jobs, by all means major in that. But most people change their plans in life many times, so the answer to “what should I major in?” is simple enough.

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What matter are the choices that you make later. If you pick a major that narrows your choices then you made a bad selection.

Friday, March 12, 2010

National Standards: how crazy is our government?

I have been mulling about writing a scathing commentary on the new idiotic national standards for education that have just been proposed. They are, more or less, the same standards that were rammed down the throats of Americans in 1892 by the President of Harvard. The government just seems to be want to make sure that no innovation or real change ever takes place in education in this century. They think our failed schools can be fixed by firing teachers and by having more tests. The idea that we might want to re-think a seriously broken system doesn't enter their minds.

I was going to say that, but why bother? I have said it many times before.

Instead, I want to point readers to an article recently posted in a congressional on line magazine that was written by my son. He is writing about transportation policy but really it is all the same. A dysfunctional government that can't get its head out of its lower regions.

And I might add, after you read it: that's my boy!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Really Goes on at College: the humanities are overrated

Here is a part of an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that came out today:

“The results of an important new cross-disciplinary survey of humanities departments make it clear that the humanities remain popular with students and central to the core mission of many institutions . The bad news: The survey found less-than-rosy job prospects for the rising generation of scholars. The good news: the great majority of the humanities departments surveyed—87 percent—said that their discipline was included in the core requirements at their college or university.”

I would find this article hilarious if it weren’t so sad. But it is a very good example of what is wrong with our university system. There are no jobs for English and History majors and no faculty openings for PhDs in those fields, but nevertheless the humanities survive at universities. How do they survive? By making the humanities offer required courses that every student must take.

There is nothing wrong with the humanities in principle. We imagine that people might learn more about life, to be better people, to understand issues that have plagued mankind, and be able to think well what it means to be human. So the humanities must be good stuff right? Here are some courses picked at random from the Yale catalogue:

ENGL 265b, The Victorian Novel
ENGL 158b, Readings in Middle English: Language and Symbolic Power
ENGL 305b, Austen & Brontë in the World
ENGL 336b, The Opera Libretto
HIST 166Ja, Asian American Women and Gender, 1830 to the Present.
HIST 168Ja, Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.
HIST 201Ja, The Spartan Hegemony, 404-362 B.C.
HIST 202Ja, Numismatics.

I am sure that these are fine courses taught by serious scholars. But that is exactly my point. When people glorify the study of the humanities they fail to mention that these are scholarly subjects of very little use to the average college student. Universities require that students take them because universities don’t want to fire the professors they already have and they need to teach something. But, with a few exceptions, they are not teaching students to think better about life, they are teaching students about a narrow part of the scholarly domain in which they do research.

Here again we have the clash between the research university and what students expect to learn when they go to college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education represents professors and they think its great news that students are being required to take the courses that professors want to teach. I think this is awful news. Students need to learn to live in the real world. There are very few scholarly jobs so there is no practical reason to teach such courses. If these course teach human skills, as we all assume, that would be great, but they don’t.

Scholars need to stop running universities.

As I have said many times I don’t think Yale has to change. We need to produce some scholars after all. But there are 3000 colleges in the United States all copying Yale’s model.