In recent debates, academic minors have come to represent freedom and choice.
Less popular departments are proclaiming that minors will let students branch out and pursue their secret passion. According to the recent Yale College Council poll, 88 percent of undergraduates are in favor of academic minors, and if minors mean more choice, then no wonder. But really, we should view the question of minors from the perspective of incentives. Minors wouldn’t just expand our options; they would also influence our decisions.
When one is offered a chance to gain validation, he or she often feels compelled to take it. Given that many students will surely opt to minor, we need to assess the impact of minors on the student body. Why would a student seek a minor? What would they attain that they can’t right now?
The truth is that the primary function of a minor is to impress employers. Do we really want our course selection to be oriented more toward appeasing employers? Instead of encouraging people to branch out, minors would become another influence driving us away from the courses we are truly passionate about.
A department chair was quoted in a recent article about minors, saying that a minor would allow a student to “formalize their relationship” with a subject. But what is the point of a formal relationship? Frankly, a minor is just a certificate that goes on your résumé to woo employers.
Would they actually be a boon to our résumés? Are employers really ignoring viable candidates just because they lack a badge of approval to go with their classes? I doubt it. People already list relevant courses on their résumés. Employers don’t need to see the word “minor” to recognize a student’s interest. Any employer that repeatedly deals with Yale will be aware that we don’t have the option of minors. Such an employer could hardly be upset that you aren’t seeking one.
If we allow minors, on the other hand, then they become a meaningful category. The minor will define what it means to be interested and proficient in a subject. It will serve as a point of reference for employers, and whether you pursue one will imply something about your level of interest.
When it comes to the job market, achievement is relative. Employers don’t just consider your résumé; they also consider your peers’. The minor would become another way to look proficient in comparison to others. So if minors do exist, students will go out of their way to obtain them. For instance, if six courses complete a minor, then wouldn’t it make sense for anyone who has taken three courses in a certain discipline (a fairly standard occurrence) to take only three more in order to receive a minor? I imagine many Yalies — success-driven and goal-oriented as we are — would jump at the chance for such an easy pat on the back. In the process, however, one loses three precious unconstrained courses. Minors would limit the diversity of our courses we take — stifling one of the great virtues of a liberal arts education.
The question of minors, then, is really a question of how we value course diversity. At some point in life narrowing is good, but in college too much focus is detrimental. College is still a time of exploration. For many, it’s trouble enough picking a major. And a minor would only constrain further. Exploration is of no small consequence. We don’t explore just to tickle our fancy; we’re trying to understand what to do with our lives — something most seniors still feel very uncertain about.
You might say that if you’re uncertain about your passions, you don’t have to take a minor. But, counterintuitively, this very uncertainty would cause Yalies to seek a minor. If you know what subject you really care about, you can major in it and nibble on whatever other classes suit your whim. But if you don’t know what you want to do, you can’t be sure your major will fit your desired employment. Therefore, some backup certification will seem appetizing.
Minors encourage people to grab hold of something stable against the existential eddies of getting older. But college isn’t really about defining ourselves. It’s about being unstable, trying things out and taking chances. The minor encourages people to play it safe, and stick to what you know.
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.