Clearly there are majors, primarily in professional schools and in the sciences, that certify students as being capable of doing certain things, of having some requisite know-how. Nurses, teachers, accountants, and engineers are all clear examples. Students with science degrees that go on to work in some capacity in labs might be another set of examples. However there are a good number of students across the humanities, arts, social sciences, and even into some business areas where that is not the case. True, every major prepares students for graduate study in its discipline, but for many students that’s not a concern. They aren’t getting degrees in psychology or English to prepare for graduate school, at least not in the way that nursing or chemical engineering students are getting degrees to prepare for jobs in those fields.
Now, if one looks at the learning outcomes for BA degrees from sociology and communications to English, history, and philosophy to media study and visual design, would anyone be surprised if teaching students to write/communicate, think/read critically, and conduct research were heavily featured on every programs’ list of outcomes? No doubt there will also be something about the content and methods of the discipline (e.g. knowledge of literary history and literary criticism in the case of English). But my contention is that those outcomes are of limited value to undergraduates in comparison to the “soft skills” that are promised. This does not mean that the degrees are interchangeable in terms of the soft skills they offer though, even though they might sound alike. Writing, thinking, reading, and researching turn out to be shaped by the disciplinary-activity system in which they operate: literary critics do not write, read, or research like sociologists. These differences turn out to be the basis for an argument for majors: students get a sustained, in-depth experience with a particular (disciplinary) way of thinking. Maybe. All depths are relative. And ultimately what I’m heading toward here is not a free-for-all jumble of courses but simply one that is non-disciplinary.
Clearly there are some colleges, typically small and experimental, where such curricula are commonplace. And virtually every college offers some mechanism for a roll-your-own-degree. But it is even more clear that these are exceptions to the rule. There are any number of disciplinary-institutional-historical and bureaucratic-pragmatic reasons for having majors. As compelling as those reasons are, it is just as interesting to realize that majors are historically and bureaucratically contingent. They aren’t necessary. So the question really should be what is the cost/benefit to having them?
I do think there is value to a programatic education, to being able to build from one semester to the next. At the same time, there is something powerful in the idea of a curriculum that does not take its primary obligation as disciplining students, that is, in providing students with some introductory conception of a discipline. This is familiar to many rhetoricians. We don’t tend to teach undergraduate courses as an introduction to our discipline. Where there are majors, they tend to be technical/professional writing; that is majors that have been designed by asking the question, how might an undergraduate make use of rhetorical knowledge? We could still ask this question without answering in the form of a 36-credit (or so) major. We could answer those questions in 9-credit segments, for example, or in thematically integrated learning communities. This is not an argument for such a curricular revision, so much as an argument that such structures are possible and worthy of consideration. We have little basis for arguing that such structures would be better or worse than our current curriculum. Undoubtedly, they would produce different results. One wouldn’t make such changes in an effort to do a better job of what we are currently doing; the point would be to pursue different intellectual goals and to design a curriculum better suited to those ends.
The major obstacle to even considering such changes is the mental trap of disciplinarity itself. Disciplines want to live on and members of disciplines want their disciplines to live on. I am not suggesting the erasure of disciplines. No matter what we do, assemblages, paradigms, activity systems, networks, and such will form and operate; disciplines are a part of that. I am only suggesting a shift in the way disciplines interact with undergraduates through the curriculum. I am suggesting that if disciplines are serious about the soft skills they purport to deliver (and often tout as the primary value of their majors), then they might think more creatively about how they offer them to students. Ultimately I think a curriculum like this might be more attractive and ultimately valuable for undergraduates than many of the disciplinary silos in which they currently operate.