This is the last segment of a three-part blog series that I mentioned in a recent video that is meant to get students and parents to relax about locking in a college major. In the previous blog post, I said college is all about perspective and learning how to learn, and not just the “fun” stuff like art and music. In this post, I want to add this advice:

Students, a little STEM won’t kill you. Your aptitude and happiness matter, and you need to know yourself and what makes you happy. But a job will also increase your happiness. After teaching arts entrepreneurship for years, I know that many music, art, dance, and theater majors hated my class. They hated thinking about taxes and contracts, and they thought having an elevator pitch was stupid. But years later, I continue to get emails and cards telling me that because of their website, they now have a thriving dance studio, or that they came up with a new way to price seats and saved their theater company, or that Yo-Yo Ma liked their elevator pitch so much, he made time for a free lesson. Few people get to follow their passion entirely (that is why most of us have hobbies.)

The world needs more artists and humanists, but being able to make some technology, manipulate a spreadsheet, and analyze numerical data are a good investment. Employers want to hire broadly educated graduates. Both colleges and students need to ask the really hard question: Are you really broadly educated if you took only one science course or avoided every course with statistics? A little pain here can provide a real gain.

It is possible to be successful regardless of major, but all of life involves tradeoffs and different levels of risks. Think now about what you really want out of college and make choices accordingly.

Your best hedge against uncertainty is to make the most of the divergent opportunities in college. Go to the best college you can afford: Yes, the more money you borrow, the more you have to pay back, and the more your major will matter. Take the best professors—no matter how early in the morning they teach or how scared you are of the subject. Discover what you love, but ALSO pursue more than just your passions.

I would tell Goucher students—and all students: Become broadly educated. For initial salary and employment, your major matters, but you can alter those statistics with some well-chosen electives. Take some things for fun, but not everything. This is your best opportunity to change what you are good at. Become a professional learner.

Goucher, like all colleges require math and science, but do more than the minimum. Learn enough STEM and especially quantitative analysis and (http://cew.georgetown.edu/recovery2020) coding, so you can learn more later. (When your children need braces, your priorities will change.) An early internship or a good professional mentor can help you find some useful electives.

This is not an appeal for every philosophy major to double major in business!! Do not major in something you hate! But death and taxes are unavoidable, and you should not avoid every business, science, or math course just because it seems boring or it is not your current strength. The same applies to the science majors: Ultimately you will want to understand what your research means to people (the humanities) and be able to explain this (writing and communication). All hard science and no fuzzy discussion will limit your career–and your happiness. Expanding your interests will pay enormous dividends later in life.

I teach music–jazz history. That might seem like a “fun” elective, but think about what music means. Nothing, actually. And yet we think it does. Music (without words) has no concrete meaning—it is abstract—it means only what you or your culture make it mean. That makes music the MOST political art form and the most political cultural artifact you will ever encounter because all of the meanings are culturally specific.

All of the music you hate (or don’t know) sounds alike, so if someone says all country or hip-hop music sounds the same, or all trumpet players sound the same, they don’t know much about those forms of music.

In learning about music or art, you will also learn about HOW cultures make meaning. You will learn not only how different types of cultures produce meaning, but how meaning is created. That is a very useful thing if you want to understand what your patients or clients are really trying to tell you. So the arts are more important than you might think, but not because they are “culture.”

The arts are one of the best ways to experience other worlds and ways of creating meaning. They offer an entrance to hundreds of other ways of knowing; and your future will require that you understand a variety of perspectives. No wonder STEM students are being advised to think about STEAM (STEM + Arts.)

One thing is clear: A college degree is more valuable than ever. But at the same time, it is only a baseline. More and more jobs will require a graduate degree AND continued learning. Learn to be more than half a thinker: you need to be both hard and fuzzy. A true liberal arts education like we offer here at Goucher means studying both humanities and science in depth.


  1. Pingback: Jose Bowen » Your Major Doesn’t Matter! Yes, It Does! No, It Doesn’t! Part II

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