STERN: You only major once

A Stern Perspective
Annelisa Leinbach_Stern_0830

It’s the start of a new school year, and incoming freshmen are already being asked what they plan to major in. This is the annoying question that replaces the standard “Where are you going to college?” and foreshadows the inevitable “What are you going to do after graduation?” This year, sophomores will have to start seriously thinking about this question, and many juniors will have to begin rethinking their old answers.

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It is now an accepted fact that fewer of these students will choose to major in the humanities than ever before. Between 1991 and 2012, the number of English majors at Yale dropped more than 60 percent. The number of history majors likewise dropped nearly 40 percent in the last decade. Meanwhile, Yale has increased its recruitment of students interested in science and math with the speed of a centrifuge and the force of a compressed spring — from organizing a prospective engineering students’ weekend to hiring a new squadron of science-oriented “ambassadors.” With all this energy and money, the trend away from the humanities seems unlikely to reverse.

Indeed, some are willing to push this trend even further. A 2012 task force organized by Florida Governor Rick Scott recommended that state universities actually charge humanities majors more in tuition to dissuade them from such a frivolous choice. Congress has even attempted to defund research in the humanities, taking yet more money away from already hurting academic departments.

In all that I’ve read on this subject, one of two reasons is usually given to justify this rapid move away from the humanities. The first has to do with the present, the second with the future. In the present, it is an economic reality that jobs are simply more plentiful in more vocational fields. Students are majoring in subjects such as business or engineering to be able to get jobs when they graduate, and that’s understandable.

The second reason is that science and math are the future. That phrase comes up over and over again: They’re. Our. Future. Personally, I’m sick and tired of this. Math and science are the future, but so is everything else. We are all the future, regardless of our majors, and by dint of our existence we will all have to play some role in it. Many of our greatest scientists will have majored in the humanities, and many of our greatest writers will have majored in the sciences. One recent study found that history majors who go into business earn just as much as business majors entering the same field. The idea that a major in the arts will lead you down a well-defined path to pretentious starvation is simply wrong, and it’s based on the incorrect assumption that a college major sets you up for a specific career.

In the last couple decades, as more and more students began enrolling in college, college came to seem more and more vocational. College was no longer the diversion of the elite, but rather the preparation of the smart for specific careers. This was a huge step in bridging the divide between the poor and the rich. Yet at the same time, it spread some false beliefs about the purpose of the humanities. People began to assume that if you majored in philosophy or English or classics, your only option was to enter academia. What else would you do with such an unfocused major? When I tell people that I’m majoring in American Studies, they often cock their heads and squint — “So … what do you do with that? Teach?”

This belief that one’s career must be directly tied to one’s major is what is killing the humanities. We’ve forgotten, apparently, that we can do so much more than just teach English or history or sociology. We can use them in many, many fields. The American Association of Colleges and Universities recently found that 95 percent of employers surveyed say that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” It is true that there are some careers that demand a specific course of study, but they are few and far between.

It is definitely true that a major in the humanities teaches you to think, communicate and reason in new ways. But that’s again missing the point. All majors teach us new ways to think, which is far more important than the actual facts we accumulate. If you want to major in the sciences, that’s great, but don’t be scared to major in something else. Yale has been unprecedentedly forceful in its endorsement of the sciences, but it would be a shame for students to shy away from their genuine interests in favor of the path Yale has carved with increasing enthusiasm.

No major can guarantee you a job, but no major defines your job either. What you want to learn and what you want to do are not inextricably linked. Go major in whatever excites you.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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