Is your major useless?

by Michael Rheinheimer | Opinion Editor
Published: Last Updated on

Without sounding too noncommittal, I have personally changed my major six times. Finally, I settled back on the major I declared when I first started college. From communication, I went to criminal justice, international relations, biology,  history and then back to communication.

All of this was motivated by fear of unemployment and uselessness,  two fears shared by one of my friends who majors in something so unique that she is one of only a handful in the major at the state university she attends.

In recent years, liberal arts majors have been the butt of many jokes. As Conan O’Brien joked in his 2011 commencement speech to Dartmouth College, “If your child majored in fine arts or philosophy, you have good reason to be worried. The only place where they are now really qualified to get a job is ancient Greece. Good luck with that degree.”

While meant as a joke, the jab reflects the common misconceptions about the liberal arts.

How useful is a degree in philosophy? There already seem to be scores of unemployed armchair philosophers in every coffeehouse in America. What about history majors? Who needs a history major in the information age, when one can learn all about the Battle of Carthage in just a few minutes?

But as it turns out, these two majors alone are quite popular among future lawyers. According to LawSchooli.com, an online Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation site, 82 percent of philosophy majors who applied to law school were accepted. The same site reported that history majors scored among the highest on the LSAT with an average of 155.9. The highest an applicant can score is 180.

Law school is certainly not the only path to which a liberal arts education can lead. In fact, many successful people study liberal arts topics in their undergraduate careers.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Jennifer Drake says that what employers value more than what a student has studied is what a student has learned.

“They want to hire employees who can think, who are problem solvers, who are creative . . . that’s the skill set that’s really cultivated in our liberal arts and science courses,”  Drake said. “What we also see is that students who come through majors where there aren’t always clearer career paths end up being quite successful in the long run.”

A 2013 study from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute found that liberal arts graduated with an unemployment rate of only 8.1 percent. The overall average was 7.9 percent. The liberal arts degree fared even better than some career oriented majors like business or criminal justice, which reported a whopping 14.7 percent.

College is an expensive investment. It might seem safe to major in something with a clear career path. But what is clearly the most important thing about college is a student’s development as an independent thinker. As an independent thinker, he or she will go on to contribute to their future employer and to society as a whole. And we will all benefit.

So do not worry about your major. Change it if you want. The truly lasting lesson of your undergraduate career will be how hard you are willing to work for something, not necessarily memorization of facts and answers.

If you want to study medieval literature, then study it. If you want to pursue film studies, then go for it. If you want to study mythology and folklore, then learn everything you can about myths. Just give it everything you have and be prepared to face the world. Your major will not necessarily dictate where you will go in life; that is entirely up to you.

 

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