Learning How To Think … About Majors

Cariad Chester '13 chats with Kristof about global health
Cariad Chester '13 chats with Kristof about global health

In 1999, a professor of art history at the college delivered an address titled “The Usefulness of Uselessness.” Her argument has since become the academic credo on campus; the idea that the pursuit of interests, no matter how disparate or “useless” they may appear to be, will somehow come in handy ten years down the line, is offered as a standard rebuke to students expressing concern over the usefulness of certain majors or the educational system in general.

“The Usefulness of Uselessness” may no longer be suited to economic and political realities outside the bubble. Over $50,000 per year is a high price to pay for academic indulgence without hope of job security, and professors and students on campus are beginning to push against the standard rebuttal to questions of utility (“we’re teaching you how to think”).

For professor of history Timothy Burke, the issue of usefulness is a question of institutional concern before its application to individual departments.

“We have an official institutional ideology that there shouldn’t be — in the simple sense of the word — useful majors,” Burke said. “And that’s increasingly in tension with one part of the national dialogue where you’ve got one group of people saying college costs a lot and the cost is only justified if it trains young people to do something specific that has specific value.”

Burke is currently working on an essay discussing the value of a liberal arts college through the lens of obliquity, as described by economist John Kaye. According to Kaye, one’s goals are best achieved indirectly. Aiming directly for what one desires — as, for instance, with happiness — rarely brings the desired result.

The educational equivalent to Kaye’s principle is seen between liberal arts colleges and other forms of education — trade, technical and pre-professional schools — that cultivate a skill set specific to a certain career. In Burke’s opinion, the volatile nature of the modern marketplace leaves individuals with a limited toolbox at a disadvantage. Rapid change favors the flexible — theoretically, those that know how to think, as Swarthmore students are often told they are taught.

But is this logical rhetoric? Professor of psychology Barry Schwartz doesn’t buy it.

“The argument that a liberal arts education makes you flexible, that it prepares you for the modern world, is wishful thinking,” he said. “Smart people are adaptable. Liberal arts schools [don’t teach that]… our students come in smart and curious, and we do our best not to knock it out of them.”

Intelligence and curiosity, however, only take you so far: majors matter. For students seeking employment right after college, certain positions require foundational knowledge that can only come from immersion in a particular area of study. Schwartz sees this as being more true for careers in the natural and social sciences than in the humanities.

Despite pervasive advising to pursue interests without worrying how they all tie together, both Burke and Schwartz note increasing numbers of Swatties entering departments perceived to offer higher utility.

“We’ve had more students majoring in the last decade in biology, economics and computer science, which indicates, as economists would say, revealed preference,” History Professor Timothy Burke said. “There may be a gap between what we believe about majors and what students, either by themselves or under pressure from family, are choosing.”

In Burke’s opinion, the branding of different courses of study as “useless” taps into deep histories of anti-intellectualism in the US: the more intellectualized a major seems, the more attention it receives from the public for its perceived uselessness.

Areas of study that people may not understand or have clear knowledge of — quantum mechanics, Renaissance poetry, epistemology — often require lengthier explanations than majors like biology or computer science, where the link to real-world application is more commonly felt and understood.

The justifications demanded of students when they return home from campus necessarily vary. Class, education level and culture can come to a head when discussing the utility of a particular course of study with family, friends and community members.

“It’s easier for Swarthmore students who are children of academics to choose a seemingly academic course of study because they have ready access to narratives explaining why it’s a legitimate choice,” Burke said. “If you’re a first generation student…You’re going to have to engage in a really lengthy explanation of what you’re doing and why it makes sense. And it’s much harder because there’s nothing in the immediate family environment that gives you access to those explanations.”

Parker Murray ’15, a first generation student and a tentative special major in design, notices differences between his view on the liberal arts and the views of friends who come from different backgrounds. His mother, who works as a hairdresser, initially expressed a desire to see her son developing a specific vocational skillset while at school; his father proposed a major in economics.

Even when thinking about the liberal arts as a whole, Murray isn’t convinced of their inherent value or utility. “Even the economics courses [I’ve taken here] are hyper theoretical,” he said. “I wish they had more courses in finance. I know a lot of other people feel the same way.”

Murray also noted that students majoring in areas he personally views as having less utility tend to come from wealthier backgrounds.

Although a divide may exist in student opinion on the value of utility, Burke doesn’t feel the gap is unbridgable. Exposing students to narratives that emphasize the value of following seemingly useless passions — through interactions with alumni, professors and deans — is one way Burke feels the college can improve current conversations on “the usefulness of uselessness” in terms of departmental study.

When it comes to choosing majors, Burke advises students to hone in on departments in which they are comfortable and already feel close to professors. In addition, projecting a vision of a future self — a more mature version of “what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up?” – can help students develop a plan moving forward, — especially when spoken aloud.

“Those stories that you tell yourself in your head about what happens next – it’s worth telling those stories out loud, even if it feels embarrassing,” he said. “ Peers and professors who have different social capital… may tell you something about your story that didn’t know.”

Ignoring polls and studies on “best and worst majors” is also important, in Burke’s opinion – they’re often inaccurate and based on questionable statistical analysis.

Schwartz, whose first-year seminar “Happiness” is among the most sought-after at the college, sees one of the most important aspects of the liberal arts education as instilling students with values in lieu of skill sets, making “use” a somewhat mute point.

“I think one of the most important questions you can answer is what’s worth doing and why,” Schwartz said. “I think that’s what we should be doing here. A liberal arts education can answer those questions… [and] if you have a satisfactory answer, you will live a satisfying and fulfilling life. You will cultivate skills for things that are worth doing.”

And in terms of choosing a satisfying and fulfilling major? “Flip a coin,” Schwartz said with a smile.

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