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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Reflections on the elusive special major

<t can you do with that major?”  “Do you plan to teach?” “How much money do (insert major here) make post Carleton?’

These are all questions that are quickly leveraged against current liberal arts students (and college students in general).  The response tends to be a quick “I don’t know” or “I’m really passionate about X actually.”

To us insiders, we pretty much consider such questions a joke.  Oh those silly people.  They just don’t understand what being a liberal arts student is really about.  I disagree.
In my opinion, a major is not something you simply do.  At college, a major is the most blatant expression of individuality a student is capable of.  A major makes up approximately 1 in 4 classes a student will take.  Where other classes are “distros’ or “for fun” the major is one of the few places in college where a student can actually say “This is me!” “I chose this!”

Why should it be anything less than the highest possible expression of self?

I understand why we have departments.  Departments create stability, they pool talents, resources, and information.  They are a great system from finding, producing, and training the awesomely talented teachers for which Carleton is so well-known. 

Departments are also incredibly confining.  They restrict growth within the physical and theoretical limitations of the discipline and its rules.  The same instruction of method that trains great talent also stifles new perspectives.  And why shouldn’t they?  We want to be sure that history professors teach history, biology professors biology, and so on and so forth.  However, it is absurd that a student should have to confine their interests within a single department.  It limits the student’s ability to explore and grow because it implies that the only way to create a definite understanding of the world is within one of these departments.

But, wait! you say.  We have this awesome thing, it’s called a Special Major.

As someone who’s actually attempted to get a special major approved can attest, it’s not easy.  Sophomore year I spent most of my time trying to bring together materials to get a special major in game design approved.  So much time, in fact, that my advisor and I ultimately decided I was spending so much time defending the major that I didn’t have time to actually explore game design in a way I wanted. 

There simply aren’t resources for students to find their own path.  Professors aren’t trained to teach students to choose a specific major and broaching the question of becoming a special major is uncomfortable and often confusing for all parties involved.  In fact, the number one cautionary response for my special major was “Just make sure you can defend why it makes sense at Carleton.”

The reason it should make sense at Carleton is that I’m going here.  I’m at Carleton because I want to learn about things to understand the world more deeply.  I’m at Carleton because I value Carleton’s principles and because I believe in what it’s trying to do.  I’m here because I want to be here.  It’s insulting to be told that I need to make sure that what I want to do “fits”.

A major should be a representation of self.  A system should be in place for students to be able to make the connections they need to create inter-disciplinary and inter-departmental paths so that they can go about doing the work that they are passionate about. 

Departments are an important part of supporting student growth.  They create special spaces and methods that create profoundly eye-opening ways of looking at the world.  However, majors too strongly tie students to individual departments.  Students that, by Carleton’s own admission, go on to do many many other things that aren’t directly related to their major. 

If Carleton really wants to make good on becoming a truly inter-disciplinary, creative, rule-bending college it needs to employ its greatest assets: the students.  The students come in unencumbered by departmental boundaries, free to bounce around like particles, transferring energies and ideas as they take paths unimaginable to anyone else.  That energy changes the college, helps it to grow and morph and move forward; it’s what keeps the college alive. 

All students arrive without a discipline, is it really useful to make sure that they leave with one?

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