The Major Problem

“What’s your major?” This question permeates nearly every social interaction of the modern university student. It seems like a clear way to understand our peers and students’ interests, but upon further inspection, it is strange we measure each other’s personalities by something of which we are so uncertain. According to Gayle Ronan’s NBC article, 80 percent of college bound students don’t know what they want to major in and fifty percent change majors throughout college. MSU, many would agree, is no exception.

The issue with majors is that they are exclusive in nature. An electrical engineering student is not likely to take studio arts classes, even if they is a passionate and talented artist. Similarly, a political science major is not likely to take advanced math classes even if they enjoy math.There is an massive array of classes to be taken at MSU, but at the end of the day a student is expected to take the courses pertaining to their major. Taking other classes is an add on, not an expectation. It should not be overlooked that university offers stimulating classes, inspirational professors and countless experiences but the primary goal is graduation. It is an epic, expensive journey students undertake to receive accreditation and the road to achieving this goal is rigidly structured.

I used to believe that one of the biggest issues with higher education, or education in general for that matter, was the exclusivity of subjects. How can we tear apart engineering and art when Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Sistine Chapel and was a masterful inventor? How can we expect politicians to make informed decisions based on statistics and scientific studies when they have no background data analysis? It must be clear by now, with the global social and political state, that these things we separate into different colleges are interconnected. Not understanding these connections makes students, as individuals, less informed people, but it has larger implications. With people in all disciplines unaware of the broader implications of their work our world becomes a less healthy, less peaceful place.

The solution may seem simple. We should do away with majors and let students study what they are interested in — let their passion drive their learning, not their credits count. In practice, however, I have found that this isn’t a useful technique. Higher education is expensive, time consuming, and without direction it can feel futile. There are some classes students simply have no interest in taking and, conversely, some of the classes students are initially least interested in prove to be the most rewarding.

Therein lies the predicament. Majors provide focus for students and help them to make connections, yet their limiting nature keeps students from seeing how their work is interconnected. The solution then, is not to do away with majors, but to transform them.

Instead of requiring students study everything, it is time the curriculums of or departments take a more holistic approach. Instead of requiring engineering students to take art classes, engineering classes should highlight the connection between the two. All classes should be taught with an emphasis on the “real world,” where solving a problem incorrectly doesn’t mean a bad score, it means a collapsed bridge and a correct answer results in a safe, prosperous highway. The way to produce constructive, sustainable results isn’t just in knowing the facts,but in thinking holistically and critically.

These types of courses are not idealistic or unachievable. Nationally and at MSU colleges are already offering highly successful courses that challenge academia’s traditional division of subjects. For example, here at MSU Florence Dunkel of the Department of Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology, is teaching a class entitled “Health, Poverty, and Agriculture.” Through using the holistic process, a grassroots way of defining goals resources needed to achieve those goals, she continues to help students and facility understand the real world implications of their academic work. The key component of this method is that there is open communication between all cultures and disciplines throughout any project, be a research project, a friendship or a university department. First, the community, with all parties involved and being communicated to in a way they understand, comes together to create a desired quality life. From that quality of life springs the current and future resources and means of production used reach the community goals.

The response to such teaching methods are mixed, but to the students involved in the classes, the customers of the university, classes such as these are vastly more rewarding and transformative than a 300 person lecture. By challenging world-views, connecting disciplines, and respecting cultural differences these types of classes prepare students for the real world where their actions are not removed from others.

People learn better by doing and teaching than by listening and reading. Through tools such as experiential learning and multi-disciplinary curriculum we have a hope of bridging the gaps between departments in academia. This must be done if we, as students and as an institution, want to positively influence our community, our state and our world.