Double Majors and a Liberal Arts Education

I am often sent interesting posts from blogs having to do with higher education.  The following link was sent to me by a parent who heard my commentary on the ever increasing over-specialization in undergraduate education, and in particular, my opposition to students selecting double majors at Middlebury.

The post, written by a current Williams College student, is from EphBlog, a blog having to do with “All Things Eph,” according to the blog, and it is worth reading, along with some of the thoughtful comments.   http://www.ephblog.com/2009/09/21/specialization-consternation/

I oppose double (and yes, triple) majors on three grounds:

  1. A liberal arts major is supposed to educate broadly.  With the average major at Middlebury requiring about 11 courses now (some require 10, many require more than 11, and many also have “cognate” requirements), students who choose to double major will concentrate more than 2/3 of their studies and course selections in two areas.  We have more than 40 majors and 31 academic departments, so students who double major have 10 or fewer courses with which to explore 40 other majors or 29 other academic departments.  From an educational perspective, students would seem to be defeating the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college if they chose to concentrate their studies like this.  In addition, there are scores of excellent faculty who, quite routinely, change students’ lives by introducing them to subject matter many would otherwise never have encountered if they hadn’t, without previous reason, taken those classes. 
  2. The false notion of “credentialing.”  Students tend to think it “looks better” on one’s resume to have two, or even three majors.  Not the case.  For years now, CEOs of businesses and non-profits have stated clearly on campus and in discussions with students that it really doesn’t matter if one has two versus one major.  The issue really is how well a student has learned to think critically, assess accurately, synthesize information well, and write and speak clearly.  One learns these things best by being exposed to as broad a range of material and modes of analysis as one can. Transcript building runs counter to a liberal arts education and also prevents a student from experiencing the richness of Middlebury’s curriculum, and it is not something that will help students after the graduate.
  3. The resource issue.  Double-majoring has a significant impact on College resources, both teaching resources and financial resources.  If a student body with 2400 students had 20% double majors, the faculty would have to offer a curriculum to meet the needs of more than 2800 students.  That is, with double majors come extra teaching requirements for the faculty, which has a negative impact on the curriculum and our students insofar as the opportunity costs they incur.

For instance, take a department that has 150 majors right now, with 60 in the senior class (students do not declare their majors until sophomore year).  That particular major requires two senior seminars (which many do), which means the department must allocate teaching resources so they offer at least 120 slots to meet the senior seminar requirement for the 60 senior majors.  With 15 students the typical upper limit to a seminar at Middlebury, the department would need to offer 8 seminars to accommodate the seniors.  Now suppose 20% of those 150 majors were “double majors.”  That would mean 30 of the 150 majors, or 12 of the 60 in the senior class, had other majors, and were taking two other seminars to fulfill the requirements in their other major.  Those students would be taking four senior seminars, and the first department would have to offer spots for 24 students (the 12 seniors taking 2 seminars in their senior year), or two seminars, that they otherwise would not have to offer if there were no double majors.  Those two senior seminars could be replaced by other lower level courses for the general student population, a first-year seminar, or perhaps reduce the teaching by faculty in that department if its classes were filled and it was overloaded with majors, which some departments are.

With limited resources, should we encourage/permit double majors when it requires departments to offer additional sections of courses when students are already getting their senior seminar experiences in other majors? Since we are not a university with graduate students who might cover a single course we need taught, and since we have no other colleges and universities nearby, we often need to hire a number of full-time faculty to teach the one or two additional courses generated by the large number of double majors when faculty who teach those courses are on sabbatical, which is a costly proposition.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Are there other reasons for why you (the students) choose to double major, especially when you hear about the costs of doing so?  Send along your thoughts!

UPDATE: for those who inquired via e-mail, I did a combined major (economics and geography) as an undergraduate.

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