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2013 Fall Issue 3 (October 11, 2013)

A "Major" Problem

October 11, 2013
By Cameron Smith

It’s a rite of passage at nearly every institution of higher learning in the country. But, does the process of declaring a major actually contradict the “liberal arts” ethos that Carleton strives for – that of a fluid, flexible, multidisciplinary approach to learning?

While Carleton students do not declare a major until spring term of their sophomore year, -- later than many comparably ranked schools -- many students are still unsure of where their interests lie by that point in their college career.

The result is what one student likens to “grasping at straws” when making what is arguably the most significant decision in their academic experience because of the implications that a major has after college. “I was super indecisive in that moment,” said one senior, who wished to remain anonymous, of declaring a major.

Major requirements at Carleton vary by department. Most departments require somewhere between 60 and 72 credits in the given field to satisfy the major. Additionally, majors like geology and biology require coursework outside of the department, as well as numerous two-credit lab courses.

If a student takes an 18-credit course load every term at Carleton they will have completed 216 credits by the time they graduate. That leaves roughly two-thirds of a student’s classes open for academic exploration.

But, as one student said, “a lot of that exploration occurs within the first two years. And then once you declare you end up taking classes that are only relevant to your major. It can feel pretty rigid.”

“I tried a lot of different things when I first got here,” said senior Jack Hessel, a computer science/math-stats double major. “I stopped taking classes outside of my major when I decided I wanted to take computer science and then again when I declared my double major.”

Since having his double major approved last fall, Hessel has taken a total of 74 credits. Only 12 of those credits were outside of his two declared majors. Hessel says he took those two classes because of the distribution requirements that they fulfilled.

“I picked most of the classes outside of my major simply because of the distribution requirements they fulfilled. I knew I wanted to specialize so I chose classes so that I could specialize earlier,” said Hessel. “I probably haven’t gotten the liberal arts education envisioned by those who created the system because I was able to make my Carleton experience more rigid than is the likely intention.”

While a liberal arts school seeks to prepare well-rounded students who can enter any field with any degree, the truth of the matter is that a large percentage of students select a major because of the traditional career paths that the degree offers them. Selecting a path in the spring of sophomore year of college is a daunting decision that many students do not feel adequately prepared to make because of a lack of experience in fields of interest.  

“I didn’t have the opportunity to take the classes I should have before declaring,” said one senior, who wished to remain anonymous. This senior said that they arrived at Carleton with the intention of majoring in biology. But when the time to declare rolled around, they had yet to take anything besides the intro level courses in that department. Additionally, the senior said that she had begun to doubt whether biology, one of the more rigorous majors in terms of credit requirements, was something that they wanted to dedicate a significant portion of their last six terms towards.

As a result, the student spent time developing a special major that fulfilled their interests as well as provided the opportunity to take the classes that they “wanted to take.” “As an alternative to what I should’ve done it works well,” said the senior.

But, the flexibility afforded by the special major is undermined by what the senior sees as a lack of practical skills. “I did a pseudo-major at a small liberal arts college. I feel like I’m gonna get in the job market and it’s gonna be hard because I’ll be farther behind than other applicants because I didn’t have the same hands on experience that they might have.”

“I’m regretful,” said the senior. “I would have done so much differently in retrospect. I don’t get to fully appreciate my special major.”

Part of the appeal of a liberal arts education is the fluidity of the academics. Students are not confined to specialized schools as undergraduates – an engineering school at a major university, for instance – but instead are afforded the opportunity to explore their interests under a multidisciplinary umbrella.

But if it is true that the umbrella is rigged to snap shut after two years is the experience truly multidisciplinary, or is it two years of multidisciplinary learning followed by two years of a disjointed series of classes that engage a student’s “peripheral” interests while the crux of their studies focus on their “major” interest?

The skill set that a student acquires at a liberal arts college like Carleton is created through exposure to multiple disciplines. So why then is it that exposure significantly reduced once a major is declared and a student must focus on fulfilling major requirements?

So instead of calling it a “liberal arts” education maybe we should call it what it is: the 2-2 system – two years of flexibility followed by two years of rigidity? 

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