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In search of a lost major

I don’t want to have a major. I don’t want to have to specialize within an ever-changing field. I don’t want to take prerequisites for the sake of qualifying for a higher-level course. I don’t want to check boxes on a major requirements form. Even though I could just choose a major like comparative literature, which only has three explicitly required classes, and then take the classes that interest me, this seems like a poor workaround to a flawed system. In the classes I’ve taken across myriad departments, I’ve studied many of the same ideas and texts. Yet, my interests do not neatly align with any one major — there’s an arbitrary wall separating humanities departments.

Having taken interesting classes in philosophy, complit, linguistics, art history, English, religious studies, Spanish, Slavic and polisci, I feel as if I don’t have a “home” department. Even though I’m a sophomore and vaguely know what interests me, the idea of choosing to focus on one department over another scares me. Having read Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic theories in order to better discuss Mark Rothko’s art and philosophical ideas of value, I don’t want to choose — this goes beyond a juvenile refusal to choose Rice Krispies over Kit Kats at the dentist’s office.

I recently attended a panel celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Hosted by the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, the panel brought together faculty from five different departments — English, film studies, TAPS, bioengineering and law — in order to illustrate several fields’ responses to the novel and its relevance to 2017. Though panelists came as representatives of their own field, none could strictly stay within the lines, often stepping on each other’s toes.

Beginning with a strict legal analysis of the culpability of Frankenstein’s monster, law professor Hank Greely soon delved into philosophical questions of the monster’s self-consciousness, age and monstrousness. Greely, along with the other panelists, could not effectively convey his point without establishing connections to other specialties — there is an implicit overlap between all these fields. The central question of the panel — what is human and what is monster? — is philosophical. Each field had to respond to that philosophical inquiry in some way.

Going to the Frankenstein panel showed me that perhaps majors aren’t so restrictive — you can still deal in philosophical matters as a bioengineer. At the same time, the panel also showed me limits; really cool things happened when the panelists broke through strict departmental lines into more interdisciplinary discussions. It is bitterly hard to divide and encapsulate ideas in these different fields in much the same way that it’s really hard to divide up knowledge into discrete 10-week classes.

Resisting the urge to choose a department, I thought that I could create an independently designed major (IDM). Having met a few alums who had done so, it seemed like the perfect solution to my problem. But when I went to visit the Office of the Dean of Humanities and Sciences, I soon discovered that, surprisingly, Stanford no longer offers the IDM program, though I could appeal directly to one of the deans.

Slightly discouraged, I went back to my dorm room to reevaluate my own choices and the things I want to do while I’m here. I thought about my own class selections, thinking about the books and professors that I wanted to spend most of my time with. It’s my intellectual prerogative to get to choose what I want to ascribe meaning to, how I want to see it and what I want to worship. I’m currently a combined major in philosophy and religious studies because I think that those subjects motivate other fields and will provide me with a rigorous mental bootcamp. But I’m still an English major at heart. If given the choice of what to read, I’m far more likely to pick up Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” than Mill’s “On Liberty.”

I don’t mean to say that there is something inherently wrong with specialization (though it can be the mark of the lazy academic); it’s what academia requires. At the same time, there is also something deeply troubling about it. Ethics classes in medical school are more focused on how not to get sued than on creating your own personal view of ethics. I worry that specialized professors will only support students whose interests match their own — it is no accident that the students of Nobel Prize winners are more likely to win future Nobel Prizes, making it seem like less of a milestone of intellectual achievement and more of a rigorous structure that rewards thinking in certain ways.

Further, no one knows what the future of any one field will hold. There are always more coding languages to learn, marked shifts in popular philosophers — Rancière and Foucault are influential today, but who knows about 20 years from now? — and complete epistemological shifts. In one sense, most of what we learn here outside basic communication, networking, speaking, problem-solving and writing skills may become entirely irrelevant. And if you’ve staked your entire future career on that field, that might be a problem. In “Diary of a Madman,” Nikolai Gogol uses the year 2004 as an example of a futuristic year that would never actually come — to us, 2004 isn’t nearly as maniacal.

I started writing this piece thinking that I would trash on majors. It turns out that I rather like the idea of having a set number of classes to take before graduation; what I take issue with is the stricter departments behind them. Practically, knowledge is divided by idea rather than by approach. It’s more useful to think about the philosophical, environmental, social, ecological, anthropological and engineering issues surrounding water sustainability than to look through the lens of any one field.

Majors should better reflect the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and allow for easier cooperation between different fields instead of dividing departments into a few select specializations. Declare with caution.

 

Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner 4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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