Why majors should be abolished: Embracing the fullness of our liberal arts mission

Recently, members of the class of 2020, paperwork in tow, bounced among the offices of professors and departmental assistants before making a trip up the stairs of Hopkins Hall to the Office of the Registrar. There, they performed an annual academic ritual: major declaration. These students came out of this tradition with an “I’m declared” pin and perhaps a t-shirt or piece of chocolate. They should not have had to go through this process, and neither should any future class at the College.

Williams is, first and foremost, a liberal arts college. Greeting prospective students as they arrive in Weston Hall, as well as current Ephs as they make their way into Sawyer, is a celebrated quote from our eminent former president Jack Sawyer ’39: “Civilization will not perish from lack of specialized knowledge or specialized institutions. Its greatest need may rather be the development of … larger understanding and of the qualities and judgment to assume its complex burdens. For this purpose, the first-class liberal arts college … remains a notable and most promising institution.” We hold ourselves to a high standard – and a necessary one. The aim of a Williams education is not to endow our students with arrows that may fill a quiver for one battle, but with the capacities and competencies that shall allow them to thrive in any challenge that comes their way. It is our mandate and has become our ethos. 

Moreover, we back up these romantic aspirations with hard data. Based on the example of those who inhabited the Purple Valley before us, we are supposed to know that we can major in anything and, subsequently, do anything. The major/career path visualization produced by former Professor of Mathematics Satyan Devadoss, Hayley Brooks ’12 and Kaison Tanabe ’13 has become a permanent fixture in Office of Admission literature, and some departments have taken on similar initiatives in recent years to demonstrate to their students how one’s intended academic area need not dictate a particular career trajectory.

The College prioritizes allowing its students to do what they want, both in the classroom and in the workplace, but believes that the latter is only possible if the former endows students with Sawyer’s “larger understanding” that makes them qualified for an expansive range of careers. Accordingly, the College does – and should –  use general requirements (such as writing-intensive or difference, power and equity) to ensure that students are developing a more complete set of foundational skills than they would if we had an open curriculum. It does not, by any means, compose the “larger understanding” in its entirety, but it nevertheless provides students with tools and experiences that help them achieve it.

Sawyer’s ambitions, though, feel inconsistent with requiring that all students at the College have a major. The legendary president asserted that the College should not prioritize the acquisition of “specialized knowledge” by its students, yet we order all Ephs to take (at least) nine courses in specific departments and impose additional instructions on the features of those courses: major requirements. Granted, some major requirements do help promote Sawyer’s larger understanding – having to write a 30-page research paper or take on an extended coding project do promote the ability of students to engage in long-term, in-depth work – but the College maintains no clear interest in, for example, all English majors taking three “literary histories.” Promoting specialized knowledge and making students dedicate roughly a third of their curriculum (at a minimum) to a specialty feel like contradictory practices for the institution. 

Nevertheless, there remains a practical case for majors. At many institutions, one’s major ends up functioning as a chief marketable skill. Yet we have committed to, and produced data buttressing, the idea that a Williams education is in and of itself a strong enough asset for general success on the job market. In other words, there should be no need to worry about what your Williams degree says beyond, well, Williams College (and there is great privilege in that). Surely, students interested in a career at Google would find some computer science classes useful, but I do not believe that the extent to which post-Williams concerns demand that all students at the College must have a specialty (and the requirements that come with it) is strong enough to justify the requisite surrender of autonomy. 

What I propose, then, is removing major requirements and adding to the existing constellation of general requirements. In this way, some of the valuable components of the major system can be retained while doing away with the ones that contradict the ethos of a liberal arts education as valorized by Sawyer. Perhaps we declare that each student has to take one or two “research” courses, wherein all Ephs develop the capacity to engage in larger, longer-term projects. Maybe we can add in a seminar requirement that helps students become more effective discussion participants. In any event, we would need to think about what we want all Williams degrees to say and, having established that, proceed to get out of the way of student curriculum choices. I feel, on some level, fairly hypocritical in offering this argument; I had not one but two majors at the College, and my intended career is directly tied to one of them. Yet the plan I advance does not dismiss the value of any student striving for depth in a liberal arts education, if that is how they feel they can maximize their time at the College. It simply seeks to offer students more autonomy in how they go about such decisions – all the while keeping Williams tethered to its liberal arts ideals.  


Jack Brent Greenberg ’18 is a political science and history double major from West Haven, Conn.


Comments (3)

  1. Knowing something in depth is a lot different from merely knowing about it, the way one does after a course or two. If nothing else, having studied his subject of interest, say, history, in great depth teaches the student that there is so much to learn about any subject, and therefore just because he has taken, say, two basic courses in Econ (macro and micro), he doesn’t really know much about economics.

    1. Hello, Max with the Axe. Thanks for your readership and comment! I don’t dispute your point that a student will certainly know economics (or history or biology….) better by taking more classes in that field. One of the points of my piece is that the liberal arts mission of the College, as constructed by Sawyer and valorized contemporarily, embraces depth of skill rather than content. So long as students at Williams are graduating with a robust set of core competencies, we need not worry about them lacking in specific knowledge – lest they wish, using your economics example, to go into a field like economic consulting or attend graduate school in economics. Nevertheless, if they are interested in such, they would still be welcome (under the plan I propose) to go and take a plentiful amount of economics courses and get to pick the classes in that discipline that most interested them.

      1. All humanities majors are interchangeable and therefore fungible. All these majors declare their value is getting you to think (as the professor does) and to write clearly (as the professor dictates). An utter waste of time and money. Life is about thinking for yourself, not writing and thinking inside the lines imposed by a professor (regardless of how high and mighty they seem). I do pity humanities professors for they think they are intelligent thinkers, rather they are mere masters of mindless and worthless indoctrination.

        Outside of a few rarefied circles, no one cares about a “Williams education.”

        We are in a skills based economy. What real, hard skills beyond fluff and self-flattery does the “Williams education” provide that one could not procure at any state school? What is the value proposition of Williams?

        You need hard skills in math, engineering and science. If you must major in a humanities, you need to get hard skills in a boot camp etc., later on.

        Abolish all majors except math, chemistry, biology, geology, statistics, physics, and associated sciences like astronomy, etc. This is already happening at many schools.

        In coming years, there will few if any human investment bankers due to AI.

        What is the value proposition of Wiliams then, the value of the amorphous “Williams education” if it cannot churn out investment bankers and self-important “finance professionals” mindlessly clicking spreadsheets, eating fancy dinners, and dressed to the nines like nonsensical peacocks?

        Investment bankers are not intellectuals in even the slightest sense. They are distributive functionaries. This is what Williams produces, and yet the marketplace of the future has no need for such human drones when it had robotic ones of unsurpassed excellence.

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