Soon to every fledgling student
Comes the moment to decide.
But since Angela's a freshman
My advice is: Let it ride.
With apologies to James Russell Lowell, that is pretty much my counsel to my daughter, who is about to begin her first year in college. Soon enough, she'll have to face the sophomore necessity of choosing a major -- whether or not she's decided on a career. In the meantime, I tell her, don't worry about it.
A part of the reason for my advice is the memory of my own struggle to decide on a major. I eventually had four of them, none of them related to what was to become my career.
But the more important reason is my conclusion, regularly reinforced, that majors just don't matter that much.
The latest reinforcement is from John Willson, a history professor at Hillsdale (Mich.) College, who, having heard once too often the question, "But what do I do with a history major?" has decided to do what he can to put his students at ease.
"Every sophomore has a majoring frenzy," he wrote in a campus publication. "It is typical for sophomores to say, 'I want to be an anchorman. Therefore I will major in journalism. Where do I sign up?' They act like they have had a blow to the solar plexus when I say, a) Hillsdale has no major in journalism, and b) if we did, it would no more make you an anchorman than a major in English makes you an Englishman."
But rather than simply repeating what professionals already know, or urging colleges to dispense with the requirement for declaring a major, Willson has reduced his advice to a set of rules and principles.
The first, which college students often find incredible, is that aside from such vocational courses as engineering or computer science, any relationship between majors and careers is largely incidental. Physics majors are hardly more likely to become physicists than business majors are to become entrepreneurs. The rule that derives from this principle: If you wanted your major to be practical, you should have gone to the General Motors Institute. The second principle is that students (and colleges) should delay the necessity of choosing for as long as practicable. "Most students (and even more parents) have rather vague notions of what the subject of any given subject is. ... Talk with your parents, but don't let parents, teachers, media experts, television evangelists or fraternity brothers pressure you into a majoring frenzy before you know what the major is all about." In short: All things being equal, it is best to know what you are talking about, which may even prevent majoring frenzies. The third is a quote from the Rev. James T. Burtchaell (writing in "Notre Dame" magazine): "Pick your major on the pleasure principle, for what you most enjoy studying will draw your mind in the liveliest way to being educated."
It sounds, says Willson, "dangerously close to one of the worst things the culture teaches us in this era: 'If it feels good, do it.' But choosing a major is a little different from choosing an abusable substance or listening to rock music. The intellectual 'pleasure principle' relates to the mind rather than to the glands. And what excites your mind will generally move you closer to what the Hillsdale faculty intended for you from the beginning." The rule: People do not get educated by hitting themselves over the head with hammers. It's good advice, and not only for students at small liberal arts colleges. A few years ago, the University of Virginia published a booklet, "Life After Liberal Arts," based on a survey of 2,000 alumni of U-Va.'s college of arts and sciences.
The finding: 91 percent of the respondents not only believe that liberal arts prepared them for fulfilling careers but would not hesitate to recommend liberal arts majors to students considering those same careers.
Those who responded to the survey included a biology major who later earned a master's of business administration and became president of a bank; a psychology major who was a well-paid executive and English majors whose careers embraced television sales, editorial production, systems analysis and law.
The "winning combination" derived from the Virginia survey: a liberal-arts foundation complemented with career-related experience and personal initiative. Colleges aren't assembly lines that, after four years, automatically deposit students in lucrative careers. What is far likelier is a series of false starts followed by the discovery of a satisfying career. In the Virginia survey, for example, only 16 percent reported being happy with their first jobs.
Willson's advice, the results of the U-Va. survey, and my advice to Angela come down to the same thing: Major in getting an education.