In our late teens, we’re required to pick a major of study and apply to the universities that offer them. This decision is fraught with difficulty; some students are simply too young or inexperienced to know what topics engage them. But it’s amazing how one’s choice of a major carries with it such significance. One of the first questions we ask eachother when we first meet is: “What’s your major?” Most of the time it’s just a benign ice-breaker, a way to start a conversation. But behind such a question is an attempt to compartmentalize us and draw from our bags of stereotypes an idea of who the person is. In a way, this line of questioning is a reflection of a larger trend in our lives.
In his radical 1960s polemic against “The Greening of America,” Charles Reich wrote: “Of all the forms of impoverishment that can be seen or felt in America, loss of self, or death in life, is surely the most devastating … As the individual is drawn into the meritocracy, his working life is split from his home life, and both suffer from a lack of wholeness. Eventually, people virtually become their professions, roles, or occupations, and are thenceforth strangers to themselves.”
Though it’s an extremely cynical view of careerism, Reich’s criticism doesn’t ring hollow. Our major and career aspirations trump geographic, ethnic and other forms of self-identity. They are used as an indication of our abilities, our personality and our role in society.
Before departing for a year abroad, I was warned never to ask a French person what they did for a living. To do so would be tantamount to asking them how much they earn, and in very poor taste. Interestingly, none of the French students asked me what I studied at home for the same reason. Could it be that subconsciously we’re predicting a person’s future income stream based on their major? If so, it’s obvious why at the age of 18, this decision is so important to how people perceive you.
Yet, the nature of our educational system makes these stereotypes particularly useless. In America, we’re required to supplement our major courses with a wide array of GEs, giving us the flexibility to explore our hidden talents. We’re invited to pursue minors and even change majors if we find we’re happier elsewhere. Universities in America offer a “universal” array of subjects. Contrast this with the rigid system of France, where each university specializes in one subject and a student’s decision at 18 is permanent.
If looked at purely as a stepping-stone to a career, a major can still be misleading. Just last week Peter Oppenheimer, CFO of Apple and agribusiness alumni, gave a talk to Cal Poly business students. I couldn’t find a single major course in agribusiness that might have directly prepared him to help lead a consumer electronics giant. I have a hunch he’s not in the minority.
Next time you pop the question or read about the controversy surrounding one’s major, temper your desire to make a judgment of a person’s true character. Like Mr. Oppenheimer, we all have an incredible capacity to adapt and a major shouldn’t be interpreted as a constraint.
Khaled Hal Saad is a computer science senior and Mustang Daily columnist