Sadly, many students come to college knowing only the minimum they need to pass certain exams, and that does not reflect genuine interest. Most discussions I’ve had about instruction tend to end up with the conclusion that our teaching style would be totally different if we didn’t have to trick people into getting interested in classes they are taking. Today I’m asking the question: what are all those students doing there in the first place? If you are a student, you need to ask yourself if you’re in the right place. You might be in the wrong major. You might be in the wrong university. And any university might not be the right place for you at this time in your life.
I’d like to explore the problem of majoring in science from two perspectives, that of students and that of instructors. This is not really a how-to or algorithm for choosing a major. However, if you are a student, there are some things I think you should think about before going to college, or before declaring a major. These are problems that go beyond any individual student, and they are symptomatic of wider societal issues. If you are an instructor, hopefully we can begin a dialogue about instruction style and advice to students. As an instructor I’ve seen that advice based on competitive social values sometimes gives students harmful ideas about why they are in college and how to get the most out of it.
I find it interesting to see what students blame for their lack of success in particular majors. In Talking about Leaving anthropologists Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt relate a narrative of a young woman in a basic electrical engineering class. She expressed anxiety about how her (mostly male) peers seemed way ahead of her in a basic lab. Once she had constructed the beginning parts of a circuit, her (male) TA came over and said “Looks good, just wire it up” and walked away. She, of course, didn’t know what he was talking about and changed majojrs. She blamed this on how her male classmates had been working on cars in the garage with their dads for the past decade. Since she didn’t have that experience, on account of being female, in her view, she just couldn’t keep up. I want to be careful about something here. The first is that the authors of the study did not blame this episode on gender disparities, but they did ask researchers to pay attention to perception of gender disparities.
My question about this narrative is “If you know that you need a decade of experience messing around with hobby electronics to be successful as an electrical engineering major, and you know you don’t have that experience, why major in electrical engineering?” My basic suggestion is don’t major in something you know nothing about. The issue is experience. What’s troubling to me is that people who have no experience in a particular field would, despite knowing that they need that experience to succeed, choose to do it anyway. Who would encourage that kind of thinking, and what would they gain from encouraging people to do things they can’t succeed at?
My suggestion for how to maximize your learning if you are a student, and reduce the problem of uninterested students if you are an instructor, is for each student to be an interested student. This might sound like something that you don’t choose. “I’m either one of those smart people at the front asking questions all the time or I’m not” might seem reasonable. However, I ask you to consider that you did (at one stage) choose to be in that classroom. You chose a major, field of study or a particular track. If you’re not one of those interested people at the front, then why not choose a different place to be?
For students, I suggest choosing a major from things you already have experience with. Preferably this would be experience outside of classrooms, perhaps even entirely outside of classrooms. Almost everybody has something that actually interests them, and it’s not always biology or engineering. Do you like to cook? Have you ridden horses? Have you decorated a room? Those are probably things you would be really satisfied studying. My first suggestion is that if it’s not entirely obvious, then write down a list of things you’ve done in your life that you found interesting. Not just stuff you’ve read about, but stuff you’ve actually done: real projects, real challenges that you had to stick with. Find the thing on the list that you already have studied, and then study that on a higher level at a university. Of course, it has to be something that can be studied at a university, and that narrows the choices. There are alternatives to going to college.
If you really haven’t spent time with a hobby of any kind, then there are two alternatives I suggest that allow you to become one of those people at the front of the class. The first is to go to a different kind of university where you can get experience doing something really interesting. Small universities allow students to get hands-on and get started with one-on-one instruction, somewhat in an apprenticeship fashion. I did research at a big university, but I started doing research with the same collaborators in middle school, not after I got to college. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, but you can think of what you would like and it’s something amenable to college, small colleges offer a way for you to get started.
The other suggestion I have if you have limited experience is to avoid college and get experience. Don’t go to college. Get a job at a bakery and learn one-on-one from somebody who is already an expert. I’m not suggesting that you beg your parents for money and go backpacking across Europe. I’m suggesting you get a job. Like music? Start hanging out at a recording studio. No recording studios in your area? Move to Nashville (or Austin, or maybe Portland). You might know somebody who’s a music major and seems to be well-connected. If you dig, my guess is you’ll find that’s how he started, except he started when he was fourteen, not after getting a bachelor’s degree.
Let me give you two examples of people who followed the latter approach. The first is my brother Michael. He could have gone to college. But after high school he moved to Arizona, and then to Italy to work at professional cycling. He start his cycling career when he was fourteen, and at nineteen Europe was where to take the next step. After a while of seeing the professional cycling world, he decided it wasn’t for him. Coincidentally, he really loved Italian culture and speaking Italian, so he started teaching English. After he did that professionally for a while he went to work in marketing for his friends’ father. Later he wanted to return to the US and go to college. As I remember it (correct me bro, if I am wrong), but the only reason he ended up going was that he saw not having a bachelor’s degree as hampering his chances of promotion at a large corporation in the United States. By the time he went to college, he already had (at least) three years of experience in marketing, and had traveled the world doing it as a professional. He finished business school in three years while his wife worked as an Italian instructor at the same university.
The second example is my friend Meagan Chandler who still hasn’t gone to college. I say “still hasn’t” because every now and then she mentions that she might want to transition to a profession where a college degree would actually be valuable. However, she’s been working as an artist, musician, dancer, music and dance teacher for over fifteen years. I would say she’s successful, not because she’s made a ton of money doing it (she hasn’t), but because she has been intentionally living that way, doing what she knows and really cares about. She knows, however, that she’s gotten experience doing other things in the meantime, and some of those things might benefit from a college education. There’s nothing wrong with going to college when you’re forty. During graduate school, it’s people like her that I’ve really gained admiration for.
When people choose a particular path without considering preparation, they pay a price. There is something that every student has spent time preparing for. I often hear instructors talking about “unpreparedness” as if it’s a problem in itself that needs fixing: let’s throw more education at people so that they’re “ready” for college. That doesn’t help people who are bored because they’re doing something that they don’t care about. This also assumes that people really fundamentally need to go to college, and that they will all benefit in some substantial way. Everyone has spent time on something that they really love, and not all of those things are helped by higher education. Some of those things are helped more by hands-on training, finding the right mentor, and just plain years of experience. College will only get you that in certain fields that value certain kinds of intelligence. It’s not for everyone.
I often hear that we need to change our teaching style, re-work the curriculum or take other measures to prevent losing science majors. But I’d like to ask if it is really a loss to lose people from a major that they don’t want. Who does it benefit to have more science majors? The most common appeal to the tragedy of losing science majors cites political calls for another one million scientists by a certain date. None of these arguments make an appeal to personal satisfaction for students or instructors. They all rely on someone’s economic and political goals, or that greed is good (more science = more money = more gooder). I don’t want any students out there to be doing something that they don’t want to just so the USA can beat Finland in science.
So to answer the question in the title: major in science if you already have experience in science. If you’re still in high school and you’re reading this, don’t go out of your way to get experience doing something you don’t want just so you can meet my criteria. Get experience doing what you want to do right now and carry on with that. If that’s something that will benefit from higher education, then go to college. Really question whether the skills that you can get from college will help you become a better chef, or horse trainer or artist.
We are sick of education. We as a nation, a society, a world, and individually are making ourselves sick over education. I can’t speak for people in other countries, but as an educator in the United States at several levels I have repeatedly seen people make themselves physically and mentally ill over education. We need to do something about it. We don’t need to do away with school, but we need to seriously re-think what we tell people about school, our values as a society and our valuation of human life.
Another semester has come to an end, which means I’ve seen another set of young people come into my office to beg for me to change their grades; I’ve seen more people crying in my office about how they need to pass a class; they’re afraid that if they don’t pass they won’t graduate; they’re afraid that if they don’t pass they are not good people. It’s as if their lack of comprehension of a model of predation or population genetics means they are not good people. Of course I want them to learn, but does that mean I want them to destroy their lives and develop a mood disorder over learning what I’ve chosen to learn? Not only do I see university students — people over the age of twenty, mostly — crying over this stuff, but some have looked on the verge of vomiting over their fear of failing a required class. After one of these meetings the other day I decided that it’s not just the students’ fault, and that’s a silly way to assess the situation. No, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Instead this is a sign of everybody doing something seriously wrong.
Education Problems are Our Problems
First let’s establish that if there’s a problem with education there is a problem with our entire society. I don’t just mean that getting an education is a fundamental part of our society, or that in America we really value education. I don’t mean that since education has been made particularly important in capitalist society that a problem with education is a problem with the whole society. What I mean is that if there is a problem anywhere it’s a problem with everything. It’s a problem for everyone and everything we do. Richard Stallman often reminds people who software freedom is important not because computers are an important industry (i.e. make somebody a lot of money), but because using computers is a part of our lives now. If you doubt that’s true, think of how often you make scheduling decisions based on the performance of a piece of software: do you ever schedule a meeting at a particular time because your calendar software makes it easier to do so? Do you ever leave the house later because your web browser wouldn’t load the article you wanted to read over breakfast? Do you ever leave the house or office a little later so you can download something onto a mobile device? Think about it and you’ll see that anything you do with a computer affects your whole life, just as your diet affects your whole life.
Education is the same way. If there’s a problem with our education system, the way we teach, and the reason we learn (i.e. our values) then there’s a problem with our whole lives. We can’t ever say “That’s a problem for the schools,” or “That’s the teacher’s problem.” It’s our problem. If your kid is having a problem learning or understanding why he should be learning something, it’s your problem.
Not only are students crying in my office, but there are larger societal signs of the problems created by our you-must-go-to-college-society. Consider that when I graduated from high school, I had a range of friends with varying interest in college. I wanted to go to college because I wanted to be a professor; I can’t do that without a college degree, plus a Ph.D. and (I thought at the time) a Master’s degree. But I only applied to one university. I didn’t apply to a “safe” school plus Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Stanford, Washington University, Scripps, Pomona, Miami University, Beaverton College, Reed College… . I had other friends who weren’t going to college at all: they had taken courses in computer networking, database administration and other topics at vocational school, or were headed to community college to take those courses. Nowadays I know people with BAs in computer science who are doing those jobs. If you can do that job with a high school diploma or a BA, doesn’t that seem a little off to people?
College-entrance-syndrome begins in kindergarten. My son will be going to kindergarten soon and I am shocked at the stuff I’ve been hearing from people. I should have known things would be different now that every toy has pop psychology jargon written all over it. Parents have told me “Oh, that’s a good school, she went to kindergarten there and she learned all her skills.” Learned what? I don’t know about you, but in kindergarten I learned about primary colors, my feelings, don’t talk to strangers, and to be nice to people. An administrator at a charter school recently told me that kindergarten is the new second grade. My brother in Texas just told me that the Dallas public schools are paying teachers to quit, while they’re spending millions of dollars on testing.
Educators automatically tell kids that they ought to go to college. I’m sure even I fell into that habit when I was working in middle and high schools. Think about it and you’ll see how weird it is. It makes sense to have had that attitude with poor kids in the fifties and sixties, and with GIs coming out of the most violent conflict in human history. In the former case you had people who definitely would benefit from the vocational and educations opportunities of college; in the latter you had trained killers already familiar with the newest technology, knowledge that would be wasted if we didn’t interest them in something before they started killing again. My father-in-law’s family is a great example of a family working hard so their children could benefit and go to college.
The question we need to ask today is “do you need to go to college to work at Hooters?” Do you need to go to college to manage a Hooters? According to College Conspiracy most college graduates end up working at jobs that require no higher education, whereas high school graduates that don’t go to college enter the workforce earlier, gain more skills and advance more rapidly than college students. Also according to the film, most college graduates who do become successful don’t believe that their college education has much to do with starting a successful business. I’m not asking about the economic value of these people or their jobs, instead I’d like to ask: are you a bad person if you choose to work as a waiter?
Also consider the futility of telling kids to go to college “just because” it will do them better in some unspecified way. One of my brothers is a musician, meaning he chooses to live in poverty. He recently told me that high school administrators learned very quickly that they couldn’t motivate him by telling him “Well, if you want to get into a good college…” He’d interrupt them and say “I don’t want to go to college, I want to play my drums.” And he does.
We need drummers. And we need farmers, and waiters, and lots of people who are still perfectly good people without going to college. My grandfather was a brilliant builder, designer and artist with a seventh-grade education. Maybe not everybody needs to go to architecture school. Maybe they need to learn trades like my friends who learned networking and database administration without going to college.
That brings up the really sick part of all of this: why we’re telling kids they have to go to college. Most often we tell them because it’s the only way they’ll “make it.” What does that mean? Well, usually when you press people they’ll tell you it means making a lot of money. Oh? Is that what it takes to be “successful?” Is money what it takes to be happy? Is money what people really need? So people are told to go to school in the long-term to make money.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that I think this not only debases education, it debases the people we tell it to. If the only way to be happy is to have a lot of money — or even a lot of prestige, i.e. becoming a doctor — and the only way to earn a lot of money is to go to school then what good is learning? What if you’re not good at school? What if you don’t need to go to school? What if you don’t want to go to school? Do you really need to be Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to be a good person? Do you even need to try?
The problem in all of this is that school has become a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, at least in America. I don’t think that every kid should love going to school — I hated it — but kids should be taught the value of learning. They shouldn’t be taught that learning is only for school; they shouldn’t be taught that learning is just one thing you do sometimes; they shouldn’t be taught that the job of learning is to make you a lot of money. They certainly shouldn’t be told money is the key to happiness.
One of the first times I realized I was different was in Junior High school. One of my neighbors saw me on the bus; I was reading The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, a book that in retrospect I totally did not understand but I read it anyway because I knew I was challenging myself, and it was cool. She said “Why are you reading? School’s over.” I can’t remember my response, but I can remember thinking the question was coming from someone who had completely wrong ideas about why we learn, and I felt sad for her.
My son recently received a book as a gift and on the cover was a banner that read “Time to learn!” I wouldn’t ordinarily think this was anything weird: it’s a good message to send that learning is exciting, right? However, we don’t reserve learning for when we’re in school or while we have a book to read. Children love to learn; they don’t need to even be in school, really. They certainly don’t need to be told “Okay, now we’re going to learn.” It’s what they do. My son is learning when he’s playing with Legos, when he’s on the playground, or when he’s reading a book. My other son is learning right now watching a Neil Peart drum solo, but I didn’t say “Okay, Khalil, it’s time to learn something; there will be a quiz afterward,” before I showed it to him.
What do schools tell kids instead? A recent lunchtime conversation with an undergrad, a graduate school drop-out, a grad student/TA (me) and a professor revealed the horrible truth. Had I forgotten it? The undergrad reminded me that throughout high school, students are told that they are in school expressly so that they can go to college. My professor colleague then said “So now people are going to college just so they can get into medical school?”