In the '70s, successful Stanfordites studied Psych. Now, they prefer Engineering.
If you want to get a good sense of an era's history and culture, one good place to start is that era's most popular college majors. Take, for example, the subjects students studied at Stanford University between 1955 and today.
In the muscular years of 1955 and 1965, when any liberal arts degree qualified a white male to work in business, History was the school's most popular major, with Economics and Political Science lurking behind. In 1975, Psychology ruled. Then Reagan won the presidency, finance took over, and by 1985, Economics was the most popular major. In 1995 -- just before the rise of the web -- Biological Sciences and Human Biology were favored. Economics held the third spot.
Now? According to three stats buried in a press release from the university's engineering school, Computer Science is the most popular major at Stanford. More students are enrolled in it than ever before (more even than at the dot-com boom's height in 2000-2001). And more than 90 percent of Stanford undergrads take a computer science course before they graduate.
Stanford is Stanford, and its stats aren't necessarily indicative of academia at large: Countrywide, the most popular major is business. But the school's computer-heavy numbers reflect its existence, both as a member of what candid college administrators call the Big Four (the other three are Princeton, Harvard, and Yale), and as a school nestled close to Silicon Valley's elite. In a lengthy feature from earlier this year, the New Yorker's Ken Auletta revealed that, even beyond Stanford's CS department:
A quarter of all undergraduates and more than fifty per cent of graduate students [at Stanford] are engineering majors. At Harvard, the figures are four and ten per cent; at Yale, they're five and eight per cent.
Stanford adores computer science, clearly; and we, in turn, tend to adore it just for that reason. It's a place that fits our technology-obsessed times. Process stories in The New York Times describing how billion-dollar deals came together often detail Stanford alumni and fraternities, rather than those from the east.
So on one level, Stanford's changing majors remind us that the current tech moment is already inscribed in our history. Our children and grandchildren may look back on the most popular majors of 2012 and chuckle at the naïveté of having just one field called "computer science" -- or, perhaps, at the idea of a college major altogether. But the new focus on computer science, for the moment, suggests how much faith we're putting -- for our careers and our overall future -- in the digital world.
A college major is one of the earliest gambles most students make in their adult lives: They fasten their goals -- for money, for success, for satisfaction -- to a certain course load and a certain imagined future. In the '50s, you needed only to study the masters of yore (who probably looked like you did); in the early '90s, pursuing medicine and the industry around it seemed the sound route. Now, the solid path is paved with technology. For whatever reason -- being rich or being cool or being safe -- more students choose a life of code, screens, and protocols. For them, the most secure future is the one that plays out in bits.