The Tyranny of the College Major

Colleges should require students to take more courses outside of their discipline.
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The American bachelor's degree has over the last 150 years become centered on specializations, majors, each student's home department.  General Education, the classes each student must take outside of the major, is still part of every degree—but it has become weaker and unfocused, disrespected and eroded.  The degree has not gotten tougher as the world has gotten tougher. Instead, legislators and administrators have simplified the degree into lists of outcomes, efficiency initiatives, graduation targets, and courses that can double count for more than one requirement. 

It is past time we re-examine, strengthen, and add to the bachelor’s degree.  General Education could and should do so much more than it does.  The California State University is fairly typical in its General Education program in requiring that students take the equivalent of about a year and a half of work in various categories at basic and advanced levels.  Students choose among the offerings from various departments at the university.  At the level of basic skills in written and oral communication and critical thinking, the choices are fewer, but then after those three courses, choices are numerous enough that, for instance, a student’s friends are unlikely to have taken similar courses in social sciences or in humanities or in sciences.  It is common to refer to this approach as a smorgasbord approach, as choices have taken the place of a common core of courses for all. 

Several functions of General Education are missing from this approach.  General Education could serve an anti-provincialism function.  It could and should provide a basic two-year sequence in intellectual history including many of the best ideas human beings have had and the attacks against those ideas.  It could get students to step outside their major disciplines to do a minor (the equivalent of a half a year work) in a social science, a minor in a science, a minor in one of the humanities.  It should should equip a graduate to deal with complex and urgent issues, which are not all addressed by their majors.

Expanding General Education will not be easy.  As a philosophy professor at Humboldt State University, I have had administrators earnestly tell me we need to get the almost half a million California State University students through college more quickly because they are using up taxpayers' resources.  In fact, educated people generate more taxpayer resources.  All studies over the past few decades, supported by census figures on incomes of college graduates, document the increased prosperity to graduates and to the surrounding culture from higher education. These administrators seem to think that result is due to possession of a piece of paper.  When I ask for evidence it is the degree and not the years of study that produces the benefits of education, I get no answer because there is no answer.

I wrote a review four years ago for The Journal of General Education of a report by the Center for the Study of Higher Education at UC Berkeley.  Here are some of its lessons: Foundations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on General Education reform and have begun backing away from financing attempts at changes.  The current near-consensus smorgasbord approach to General Education–one course of this, a salad of that–is ineffective, and attempts at reform flounder on the shoals of majors and departments and feckless administrators.  The report catalogues successes and failures and reasons for failures. Successes, according to the report, are pathetically small. Most attempts at reform are pathetically small. 

Majors are not likely to give up their powerful central position now.  Departments, colleges, textbooks, and conferences are all organized within the boundaries set around majors. By now, we should not even ask—even though institutions who get along without them or who call glorified General Education programs majors are as good or better at preparing students for the world, based on their reputations among colleges and universities (Columbia, St. John’s and other Great Books programs, Oxbridge’s Greats).  It is not uncommon to find universities containing general honors colleges, Great Books programs, Humanities programs, or Liberal Arts programs in which admission to those programs excuses students from the General Education requirements.

Let's put some teeth, finally, again, into General Education.  Here’s how that General Ed part of the bachelor’s could look, with one of its aims being to increase the degree to which graduates in Fisheries and Business and Classics and Social Work and School Education have common ground, common background (plug your hardest-to-conceive in here: Mineralogy, Dadaism, Music Theory, Cosmology, Nuclear Engineering). Start with a two-year upper-division series on intellectual history of the world, stressing the best ideas humans have had and the attacks against them. We could thus anchor the General Education program and provide context to the rest of the degree.  Then add a requirement of three minors—one in science, one in social science, one in humanities—each minor a full half a year of work, in fields with no departmental overlap with the major. Such minors would increase the breadth of learning and the sense of belonging to the same intellectual community.  Those would combat provincialism.  Conversations at parties might get better.  

Stepping back to consider the degree and what it’s for might help us see that it needs to be given renewed power, that it takes more time than we have been giving it, that high-impact and demanding General Education curriculum is at its heart and, even, that the people who teach it should have room and time to use their skills and do it right.  I am retirement age, and I suppose I will be glad to get away. But I may still have a conflict of interest in that I want my children and grandchildren and my students' children to get not simply a degree, but a basic and substantive education. They are growing fast, and this rehabilitation is long past due. 

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J.W. Powell is a professor of philosophy at Humboldt State University.

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