Choosing your major

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Photo by Patrick Goodman

Dedicated to our students in Rome, Fall 2018 to Spring 2020

“What’s your major?”

If you don’t have one, you may feel slightly embarrassed if someone asks this question. No need. I offer this article not to tell you what major to choose — and, no, I am not recruiting for English (we do quite well, thank you very much) — but to explore why and how to choose one, generally, and to persuade you not to be afraid of your future. 

I should confess that I chose my own major, English Literature, late because it was one of three that interested me, the other two being Art and Political Science. I loved to draw and paint and had an interest in politics.

The first question may seem odd: Why should you pick a major? Because people pick majors?

Not all do, actually. Some colleges — St. John’s College, for example, or Wyoming Catholic College — require four years of Core, and there are no majors. Many universities,especially public ones,emphasize major to the exclusion of general education requirements, many of which are done away with through AP credit. (Mini-rant: AP is weakening both the last two years of high school and the first two of college by collapsing them into one another.) General education is now a set of distribution requirements that can be checked off with one of hundreds of courses, so there is little sequence and less coherence. 

At many schools, then, one has a choice of an excess of Core or a defect of general education. The University of Dallas, however, hits the Aristotelian mean.

Why is this mean an educational virtue? 

The Core provides an education that all students, regardless of major, need to flourish as human beings. Core classes are not, or should not be, introductions to a discipline; or, if they are, they are introductions to that discipline understood in the broadest sense possible in those subjects, arts or sciences, and dispositions that every person as a person needs to be liberally educated. One need not be a biology major to be well educated, but you do need to study biology to be so.

But a major is a discipline built around both a subject, art or science, and a disposition that is specific to it. Submitting to a particular discipline disciplines you to study a particular kind of phenomenon in a certain way, and doing so forms you in habits of mind and being that attend that phenomenon and its study. 

This is why there is a family resemblance to those in the same major: they have all been disciplined by the same study.

All Core without a major leads to broadly learned but superficial minds; all major with minimal general educational requirements leads to sophisticated but provincial minds. It is the distinct combination of major and Core (best fulfilled by the Rome semester) that leads to broad learning and sophisticated minds. Core tempers major from becoming idiotic specialization; major tempers Core from becoming supercilious generalism.

How should you not choose one? 

Others should not choose it for you—whether friends or family. Arranged marriages are hardly liberal. You should seek counsel, but you yourself should do the choosing. Nor should you just follow a favorite professor. Please, a Catholic education for independent thinkers should have no gurus. Nor should you flee a detested one, since sometimes you are introduced to your discipline by someone you don’t find congenial. Nor should you pick a major because your friends are majoring in it. Certainly do not major if you have not had a class in the subject, since you do not know what you’re choosing.

How should you choose one? There are three other questions to explore to answer that question: What do you love; what are you good at; and what are your plans?

Although UDers like to argue about the best major, that ranking discussion, although great sport, misses St. Paul’s wisdom from I Corinthians 12:4. There is a diversity of gifts in a community, even if given by the same Spirit for the common good. 

We do not all love the same things, and discerning what you love is a fundamental educational pilgrimage. 

Love is a motion: it moves us toward the object of love. What are you moved toward? This is the subject whose events, ideas, texts, equations, experiments, artifacts, images or activities attract you to them, move you. Here, the homework does not seem like a burden since it’s like dancing with your beloved. I loved Shakespeare when I was a sophomore; I only liked Locke. Still do.

What are you good at? Sometimes, we love things in which we have little gift: you like the discipline, but it doesn’t seem to like you. If you are not getting A’s or B’s in a subject, you probably should not major in it; if you’re getting D’s or F’s, certainly not. How’s Organic Chemistry going? C’s are more complicated, given that some departments and professors are more difficult than others. 

I had to acknowledge as a sophomore that, although I loved to draw and paint, I was not as gifted at them as I was at interpreting literature and writing about it. I haven’t drawn or painted in years, but I’m writing an essay about “King Lear” now for pleasure during the COVID-19 lockdown.

What are your plans? Of course, this addresses the most reductive of questions one has to field, especially when you’re a student at a liberal arts college: “What are you going to do with that?” someone will ask, often dismissively.  Although it can be reductive, it remains an important question. Can you imagine doing something with your major, directly or indirectly, to contribute to the common good and make a living? Some majors are more directly pragmatic than others, often looking like they eventuate in a secure living. Others are preparatory to more education that helps you contribute and thrive. Many UD majors are pre-professional. A lawyer might study history, English, politics or philosophy, for example, before going off to law school. Our English department has had majors who went on to become doctors. 

When I was a sophomore, I chose to major in English but also began coursework in education for a teaching certificate; later, I studied for the M.A., which led to a Ph.D., without which UD wouldn’t even have interviewed me. (How I got hired remains a mystery to me.) 

Most of you will get more than one degree of some kind or another. Some students like to start with the end and know what they will do, but, of course, no major guarantees a job; others like to forget all about the future, but may miss opportunities like internships to turn what they love into a career. You might have to get a job, but ultimately you’re seeking a vocation, something that calls you to its discipline and way of life. If you can pull it off, get paid to do what you love.

To pick a major, answer these three questions for yourself, and put those answers into conversation with one another by ordering them: What matters most to you—love, talent or result?

As you reflect, do not be afraid of your own future. We live in a timid age, an age of terror during which people presume a hard world of scarcity in which only the illiberal skills matter and everyone should major in Zombieland Studies. (Let me save you some money: buy a shotgun.) But UD students tend to flourish on the whole, in part because they come from good families, in part because of the liberal character supporting all of our educational work. 

The mission statement is a statement for all of UD, not just Constantin: our primary end is our dedication to the pursuit of wisdom, truth and virtue. I interpret wisdom as the sum of truth (knowing what is) and virtue (acting in accord with what is): W=T+V. It took ten years of teaching the Trivium for me to come up with that equation with the help of our students.

My belief in the efficacy of that liberal mission is due not only to the character of the education we provide but also to the alumni we help to make with their parents, their friends and themselves. I can honestly say after twenty-five years at UD that, if I had a business, I would hire only UD alumni. Those I have hired or worked with here turn out to have the high competence and good cheer that come from the wisdom that is truth and virtue. Many outside UD tell me the same in response to our alumni.

But beyond work, one should not be anxious or afraid, even in a difficult semester of the plague. 

A liberal education encourages many virtues, but one is certainly the equipoise that comes from courage, a courage that comes from being able to distinguish the less important from the more, and the more from the most. Be not afraid; then, choose. 

As Stephen Sondheim has one of his characters sing in “Sunday in the Park with George:” “Stop worrying where you’re going. / Move on. / If you can know where you’re going, / You’ve gone. / Just keep moving on.”

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