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. 

Presented by

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

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