What majors promote “thought”?

Here’s a quote that’s been making the rounds lately:

The death of the humanities and the disciplines that promote “thought”—the majors in which have declined in real terms to less than 10% of college majors, with business expanding to 22%—results not from a loss of interest in the humanities but from the material interests that confront students.

So which majors are we talking about? There’s a debate raging in the comments of the Valve about the relative merits of a humanities degree compared to, say, biochemistry. Is biochem what Jeffrey Williams is talking about when he says most majors don’t promote thought? The example he offers as a non-thought-provoking major is “business.” I’d say there’s a long way from biochem to business: is Williams really lamenting the rise of biochemistry here? I wish Williams had provided figures from the liberal arts as a whole — or maybe that’s what the ten percent represents. A quick Google search did not reveal the percentage of students graduating with liberal arts degrees. Rather than search deeper, let’s see if we can guess what Williams means.

At Davidson College, which seems pretty typical to me, majors are offered in the following fields: Anthropology, Art, Biology, Chemistry, Classics, Economics, Education, English, French, German, History, Interdisciplinary Studies, Mathematics, Music, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, Spanish, Theatre. Clearly Williams isn’t dissing humanities, so let’s get rid of those disciplines and see what remains: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Education, Interdisciplinary Studies, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, Psychology. Now I don’t think anyone would agree that “education” falls within the traditional liberal arts — it’s clearly an intrusion of careerism into Davidson’s curriculum, so we can remove that as well. Let’s also remove the noncommital Interdisciplinary Studies. Now we’re left with just eight: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, Psychology. Let’s take these one at a time:

Anthropology. Somehow I don’t think Williams views this as a careerist major. Plus it’s not going to inflate the overall numbers much. We can safely assume anthropology promotes “thought.”

Biology. This is a tough one — biology is a broad discipline. Lots of biology majors go on to become doctors, so in a sense, this could be viewed as just an arm of the capitalist system, not a really thought-provoking discipline. Some might argue that biology is really a matter of memorization rather than serious analytical work you do in the humanities. On the other hand, biology includes ecology, field work, and understanding the very nature of life. I think we have to let this one slide into the thought-provoking disciplines.

Chemistry. I have a soft spot for chemistry since I’m certified to teach it in high school. On the one hand, chemistry helps us understand the very nature of the physical world around us, but on the other hand, it’s perilously close to engineering. They even have a subdiscipline of engineering called “chemical engineering.” Overall, though, chemistry majors don’t really learn about chemical processes that industry is especially interested in; it’s much more general than that. We’ll let chemistry slide, too.

Economics. Oooh. This is almost “business.” While there are plenty of thoughtful economists, I think we have to move this discipline into the non-thought-provoking category.

Mathematics. This discipline is incredibly tough — both to categorize, and to complete. There are really very few pure math majors — the discipline is just too hard. But if you do manage to graduate with a degree in mathematics, you will have no trouble finding a job. Still, I think we have to count mathematics as promoting thought. Math is in.

Physics. Like chemistry, perilously close to engineering. Still, it’s perhaps less applied than chemistry, and allows us to ponder mysteries such as the origin of the universe. I think physics is in.

Political Science. While political science at first glance would appear to be an eminently practical discipline, much like business, in practice it can also be taught more like political philosophy. You almost need to divide this major in half. If it was “government,” it would definitely be out, but I think we need to let political science slide in.

Psychology. Ah! We save the best for last. Again, psychology can be very applied: counseling, industrial, educational. But there’s lots of pure research there as well (see Cognitive Daily). Unfortunately, much as I hate to do it, I think we have to put psychology out. Most people take psychology not to learn how the mind works, but how to get a job.

So here’s my best guess at the disciplines, outside of the humanities, that Williams is likely referring to as promoting “thought”: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Political Science. Other than Biology, I doubt these add much to that 10 percent figure, so I think Williams’ larger point still stands: that by shifting to a debt-financed college education we are compromising the values of that education. Instead of promoting thought, we are promoting job training. Even at a school like Davidson, by selecting your courses right, you can get an education that doesn’t really encourage you to think beyond where your next dollar is coming from. And if you’re borrowing upwards of $100,000 to pay for that education, who’s to blame you if you do?

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6 Responses to What majors promote “thought”?

  1. BookFace says:

    All I know is that the $150,000 degree in liberal arts I received in May will not be recouped anytime soon, judging from my luck in the job market thus far. And so I can’t say I blame people for going to college with a vocation in mind…

  2. dave says:

    I think that’s precisely Williams’ point: people shouldn’t have to pay that much for a decent education; they shouldn’t be forced to choose between a bad education with an obvious means out of debt, and a good education coupled with a huge burden.

  3. Doug Hoffman says:

    When I went to Berkeley (1979-1983), my first interest was anthropology. I went to my prof’s office hours and told him so. He told me to forget about it. They hadn’t been able to find jobs for any of their grad students — not a single one.

    Those anthro classes I took really were my favorites, though.

  4. BookFace says:

    In Europe a college education is still insanely cheap. I studied abroad in Madrid for a year, and I asked my classmates how much university cost, and it was something in the neighborhood of 500 euros a year — for a very well-respected “state” school.

  5. Pat says:

    Give me a break.
    What promotes “thought,” the discipline or the folks (teachers and students) that study them? Business courses taught by effective instructors or taken by inquisitive students no doubt involve “thought.” For example, such programs frequently include discussion of business case studies and development of business plans for new products or services. These certainly involve critical and creative thinking, but is this “thought” disqualified because it’s too practical and not enough navel gazing?

    Likewise, humanities courses taught by lame instructors and/or taken by dull students do not promote “thought.” Sorry. Just what thoughts are promoted by a poorly presented class on French poetry, or second year Chinese? [Maybe that I hope to make a fortune selling premium ice cream or coffee in China.] The difference is that the business course (or chemistry, physics, computer science, math, economics, psychology, statistics, etc.) often includes learning specific routines or recipes (how to use a spreadsheet, synthesize meth, forecast demand) that can be useful in the real world. Such routines often can be learned superficially without any “thought,” but to suggest that the discipline does not include “thought” is plain wrong. Humanities courses, in contrast, typically have less of these recipes. So I guess they must promote “thought,” … or something.

    Personally, I don’t think an undergrad business degree makes a student that much more marketable for jobs that require critical thinking skills. In fact, I think such a degree often is a handicap. Any job seeker will have to convey that they have the requisite thinking skills. Typically, this requires more than saying “I was an English major” (right Dave?), or “I was a business major”. Is an English major handicapped because she doesn’t (yet) know certain recipes, despite having “great thought” skills? I don’t think so. I think the problem is that having a humanities degree doesn’t guarantee that you can think, despite the alleged promotion of “thought”. Thus I’m not yet convinced that expensive college educations explain the prevalence of undergrad business degrees. Finally, does this increase really imply less “thought” (including the navel gazing variety) in school? Or have a number of dull students just switched majors?

    But at least we now have snowboard cross as an Olympic sport!

  6. dave says:

    Good points, Pat. I do hope you realize I’m taking Williams’ analysis with a grain of salt. Of course I realize “majors promoting thought” is a horrific overgeneralization.

    Undaunted, let’s continue with more horrific overgeneralizations. In response to your question, I think English majors might be handicapped in the job market because they haven’t figured out what kind of a job they’d like to do. If they had, they might have been forestry or engineering majors.

    Now, whether or not specific majors are more or less responsible for a lack of thoughtfulness, I suppose, is uncertain. I do think we can, again in a horrifically overgeneralized way, pick out certain majors as “less thoughtful” than others. I’d put business, nursing, and criminology near the bottom. This doesn’t mean there aren’t thoughtful businesspeople, nurses, or police officers–just fewer than there are English majors (or economists).

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