I recently sent out a video message to the members of Goucher’s Class of 2018 and their families. In it, I try to allay the academic anxiety that paralyzes both students and parents alike. In this three-part blog series, I will explain why there’s no reason to worry and why a student’s major takes back seat to his or her ability to think critically, using a variety of perspectives that are enriched by a true liberal arts education. Here’s the first part:
I had nine majors in college. I tried Japanese, physics, comp lit, and more, before graduating in chemistry (and one course shy of that double major in ancient history.) I still felt “uneducated,” so I did an M.A. in “humanities” (what we jokingly called the “Evelyn Wood School of Western Culture.”) The humanities and the sciences BOTH remain critical to my thinking.
In the sciences, I learned to look at data and crunch numbers. I learned to ask better questions and to be suspicious of theories (and results that adhered too closely to theories). Most importantly, if the data did not support the hypothesis, I learned I needed to change my mind and really look at what the data were telling me. Science taught me how to have an open mind.
The humanities taught me that analysis is always influenced by perspective and that everything has meaning to someone. I learned to ask better questions, be suspicious of theories (and results that adhered too closely to theories) and most importantly, that if the data did not support the hypothesis, I needed to change my mind and look for what someone else might see in the data. The humanities also taught me how to have an open mind.
Data are awesome, but (almost) all of them are relative, and meaning can be found (almost) anywhere for someone. Both scientists and humanists make the really big discoveries when they look at a problem from a new perspective and ask a new question. In a way, these lessons can (and should) be learned in any major, but I find that without an education in both humanities and sciences, you are only half a thinker.
My major didn’t really matter. College taught me how to think in complex ways, and it did that by forcing me to look at problems from different disciplinary angles. We call the different majors “disciplines,” and disciplines imply focus. Students often think that the different departments study different types of things, but it is really that each asks different types of questions. A discipline constricts the sorts of questions you ask of data. That focus is essential for deep understanding, but we (in academia) also recognize that change of perspective is also useful, and so we are constantly creating “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” programs.
Most colleges, Goucher included, also try to balance these needs by having both a broad interdisciplinary core and majors that allow for more depth in one discipline. It sounds good, but general education requirements such as Goucher’s liberal education curriculum are often seen as a chore to be finished before students get on to what they really want to do. Because we are organized in colleges by disciplines, it is also natural that our loyalty and attention tends to be on “our” students in “our” majors.
The jobs of the future (and indeed happiness in your future) will probably require both qualitative and quantitative work. Most colleges will let you major in one or the other (humanities or sciences in very broad terms), but your thinking and your potential will be advanced by depth in both areas.