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Don't Major

By Milo B. Beckman

My freshman year, I dabbled. I knew I wanted to major in math, so why not shop around first? I took classes exclusively in fields I’d never touched before, and it was addictive. I did it again sophomore year: complex analysis, road to the White House, computational linguistics, jazz harmony, history of sexuality. Each class was exciting and new.

At some point, I realized my concentration requirements weren’t adding up. I switched to economics, then to applied math, and finally to government, after seriously considering linguistics, music, and philosophy along the way.

Why was this a choice I had to make?

At this school, we’re often reminded of former University President Lowell’s scholarly ideal: “to know a little of everything and something well.” We think of it as a justification for the general education system, but in 1910 it meant something different. It ushered in the new system of concentrations, in response to the rise of skills-oriented colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lowell worried that Harvard’s well-rounded scholars were economically useless, so he forced them to pick a track and stick to it. Colleges around the nation followed suit.

A century later, it’s high time we consider whether this is a good policy.

I don’t particularly want to know one thing very well. I want to have adequate working knowledge of just about everything. I want to know enough that I can engage with your passion, whatever it is, and bring my perspective to the table in an informed way.

If it were optional to pursue a concentration—and it should be—I would decline and I would advise most students to do the same.

First, some practical points. Only 27 percent of college graduates work in a field related to their major, less than the 30 percent who will likely work in jobs that don’t yet exist. To the extent that your major is correlated with your income, this is mostly selection bias: those drawn to major in math are similarly drawn to work in finance. Barring pre-professional tracks, your choice of major should not noticeably impact your life prospects.

More importantly, academia is in desperate need of cross-pollination. The concentration system, along with the graduate school system it feeds into, fosters tribalism. If all you know is economics, it’s all too easy to dismiss sociology as methodologically flimsy or unnecessary. Institutional barriers beget intellectual barriers.

This endangers progress. When everyone contributing to a field has been fed through the same pipeline, who will question the orthodoxy? Who will propose a new lens through which to view an old problem? Some of the greatest breakthroughs of human thought have come from a synthesis of concepts previously deemed unrelated.

Many fear a loss of autonomy for their fields—most commonly, an invasion of the humanities by the sciences. This fear is not unfounded. Empirical discoveries have a tendency to be overhyped, overstretched, over-applied. The quantum nature of reality has no bearing on international politics. Merely because poems are composed of phonemes doesn’t mean we need a lecture on glottal stops in a course on Keats.

But often the breakthroughs in one field can inform the assumptions of another. A better understanding of human decision-making should certainly temper our belief in the brand of hyper-rationality taught in economics courses. And the explanatory power of biological evolution must constrain the scope and nature of religious doctrine. We should not fear intellectual outsiders. We should welcome them with healthy skepticism.

On a personal level, though, there’s another reason I’d rather dabble than delve. Looking at the world through a wide-angle lens reminds me that the compartmentalization of knowledge into discrete fields is a human convenience. The borders are porous. Everything—everything!—is derived from the same foundations, layered in complex, fascinating ways. The understanding that all the pieces are part of one bigger puzzle—that the world is a coherent, unified, intelligible whole—is life-affirming, awe-inspiring, and at its core, beautiful.

Coloring in as much of that picture as possible, leaving no black box unopened—that’s why I’m here. For me at least, that’s immensely more satisfying than the marginal returns from a fourteenth math class.

So when I tell you I switched to the major with the fewest requirements, I’m not being as cynical as you think. You might even consider doing the same.

Milo B. Beckman ’15 is a government concentrator in Eliot House.

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