A college major can mean very different things depending who you talk to.
Some people swear by their major and identify themselves by, “I majored in (insert major)” or “Well, I was a (insert) major!” For some, a major is the very foundation of everything they hope to become. To others, this is not the case. A major is little more than a hint of what you did in college. It’s just a slightly different shade of gray under the important part: Bachelor’s, Master's, or Doctorate.
And even the important parts might be losing their luster these days.
The major, for many, does not even really need to be mentioned. But with the actual question of what a major does for anyone out of mind for a minute, we have to realize that the major itself may say more than we realize about who we are.
“I have a very good reason for choosing philosophy.”
The truth is, as the cost of college loans continues to shoot through the roof and as the tumbleweeds continue to blow through the job listings online, the idea of college becomes something more and more out of touch with how the real world actually is. The brick buildings and the ivy and the quads and talking in circles and engaging with professors is all well and good, but it just seems like an expensive way to get a label slapped on you for the rest of your life.
“I am Adam, the elementary education major.”
In essence (and this is the inescapable part), we are branding ourselves with a cliché about who we are. So choose wisely. Speaking to my experience with a liberal arts education, I feel that many majors are neither adequate preparation, nor a big push into a selected field. The New York Times does not shy away from dissecting the mystery that is the college major. In an education piece, Cecilia Capuzzi Simon explores choosing one major out of so many (in the case of the University of Michigan, 251 majors). More majors lead to more specialized majors, and more specialized majors mean more individualized labels, and more individualized labels mean students have to think less about setting themselves apart and more about what brand they fall under.
On the flip side of choosing the most finely tailored major, Jeffrey J. Selingo writes in The New York Times that the major doesn’t even matter. Just dig a bunch of stuff while you’re in college because you’ll be doing something completely different anyway. You have Jenna Goudreau of Forbes decrying anything that smells like a liberal arts degree as unmarketable and unprofitable, while the Princeton Review creates a list of the most popular college majors that makes me wonder where all the biologists and psychologists are now, and what to make of our political scientists.
The declaration and completion of a major seems to be turning into a four-year-long personality test. People go into college, follow a subject of interest, and then exit with the stigma of being a history major (I’m not saying there is one, but if you are one, you know there is). Communications, safety studies, journalism, political science, theatre and dance, English, education and, yes, philosophy all are super-interesting ways to spend four unforgettable, expensive years of life, but are they really what they promise? No one emerges an expert in their field and then falls into a job. Is there anything that can only be learned in college?
No, there isn’t.
Like the majors themselves, we all emerge from the four-year college machine with shades of knowledge but not with mastery. That can only come with experience. But can chosen majors even get us in the door for the experience?
Looking at TIME magazine’s list of the most profitable majors versus the least profitable shows a sharp divide between various specialized types of engineering, and the liberal arts. But even making a list of the most and least profitable majors is like picking out the cashews from trail mix — it’s all roughly the same stuff left in the bowl. The glamour of a “college education” is slowly deteriorating as masses of educated, indebted students are becoming the masses of unemployed, and as a result our majors are saying less about the skills we carry and more about the brand of person we are. They are also saying less about what field of work we will head into and more about what field of work will welcome our brand.
A major is becoming just a trait of personality to be carried around. It’s a picture of what kind of person we are and whether we want it to or not, a college major is part of our public profile. Being an English major does not guarantee that I am a better reader, editor, or writer than anyone else, but it does lump me in with the stereotypical image of an English major.
Intrinsically and arguably out on the job market, a degree is still a wonderful thing. But these days choosing a major seems to be less about supplying skills and more about producing an expensive brand. You are what you major in.