Thursday, January 20, 2011

musings about majors

So, as everyone reading academic blogs knows already, the news story of the week is that Our Children Is Not Learning. Unless, of course, they happen to be liberal arts majors.

As much as I'd love to claim this as a victory for the humanities and sciences -- and for academic rigor in general -- I have to confess I'm skeptical. What I really suspect is going on is that a) we're admitting a lot of students who are way, way over their heads in college and would not benefit from most of their classes even if they had the best teaching in the world; and b) the type of student who DOES benefit from college also happens to be the type who is more likely to major in the arts and sciences.

I don't know exactly why this is the case, but I always scan my course rolls for students' majors as they start to register for classes, and I've learned a few rules of thumb. It makes me happy to see lots of English majors, of course; ditto history and other writing-heavy subjects; but biology or chemistry is usually equally good news. Actually, almost anything in the College of Arts and Sciences is good news (although fine arts is sometimes dicey -- theater majors, on the other hand, can be flaky, but they're usually smart). Secondary ed majors are quite decent, but they usually have a second major in the arts and sciences. Pre-nursing students are a mixed bag, but OK-ish students, as a rule. Ditto culinary arts. Business, elementary ed, physical therapy, and kinesiology majors are bad news. General Studies is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

I hasten to add that these are very broad generalizations, and I've met lots and lots of individual students who are exceptions. (And I don't, of course, let my preconceptions about the major influence how I treat the students; in any case, I've usually forgotten what they were studying by the time I meet them in the classroom, and only remember when I check back at the end of the semester.) But an awful lot of the time, the generalizations hold true. And the differences among majors are evident in freshmen, students who haven't yet taken classes in their intended major, so it's not as if education classes make people dumber. (Although I have sat through a couple of teaching workshops that I'm pretty sure made me dumber.)

I think there are a couple of factors at work, one more or less benign, the other more worrisome. First off, a school like Misnomer U. -- a not-overly-selective small state university -- is really at least two different institutions awkwardly smushed together. It's a college and a trade school. Many of our students are looking for certification rather than education. Mostly, they get what they came for. A few of them may catch on fire when some stray sparks land on them in their gen ed classes. I like to think that some of the ones who don't catch on fire at least discover that the world is bigger than they learned in high school. But by and large, it's cool if they don't learn anything other than physical therapy. (On the other hand, if they are education majors it's not so cool.)

But even here, we get a fair number of students who are looking for more than certification, and those tend to be the ones who drift toward the College of Arts and Sciences -- because it takes a leap of faith, and a bit of intellectual passion, to get an undergraduate degree in history or theater or even math or chemistry, when everybody in your life is asking "What are you going to do with that?" You have to like an academic subject so much that you don't care what you're going to do with it, or have enough imagination to recognize that you can do non-obvious things with a philosophy degree, even if you've never seen an ad for a philosopher on Craigslist. You have to, in short, be a person who thinks. And you have to be OK with reading books and writing papers, or spending lots of time in the lab.

So far, so good. But things start to look less benign when I think about the differences between Misnomer U. and the Beloved Alma Mater (also a smallish state university, but far more selective; the sort of place where the vast majority of my classmates aspired to grad school or law school). See, we didn't even have majors like Physical Therapy and Paralegal Studies at the Beloved Alma Mater. Education was an option, but you had to double-major in something else. Business was an option, too, but that was about it for pre-professional studies. Practically everyone I knew was majoring in a traditional arts-and-sciences field, or else a quirky and even more gloriously impractical interdisciplinary program. I suspect that this still is the norm for selective colleges. It's the open- or nearly-open admissions schools that attract huge numbers of students with majors that are linked to a specific job. And within these schools -- if Misnomer U. is typical -- the students who aspire to a degree in education or general business or physical therapy mostly seem to be the first-generation college students who are coming in with spotty academic preparation and only a vague idea how the university works, not the children of doctors and lawyers.

And that's a problem. And I haven't the foggiest idea what the solution is.

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