Dad, I Need to Pick a Major!

Classical Pedagogy

Higher Education


Dr. Ryan F. Smith

Dad, I can’t wait to go to college! But I need to decide on a major for this application. There are forty-two possible options at this school, and 138 at the other one. How do I pick just one?

Have you considered attending New Aberdeen, where you can earn a degree in Classical Christian Studies?

Why should I attend a college that doesn’t have options for a major? A college degree without a specialized major is like a car without tires, right? I mean, really, isn’t the purpose of college to get trained so you can do something for the rest of your life?

The concept of majors is relatively novel, historically speaking. The idea that you would intentionally narrow your expertise at this stage runs counter to the traditional Western approach to higher education.

Wait a second. Isn’t learning a discipline the point of college?

You mean, to prepare for a specific career path?

Well, sort of. I know college is full of sports, and fraternities, and dorm life, and…

Hmm, that’s what you’re expecting in college?

Yeah. And majors.

At a college like New Aberdeen, you can develop lifelong friendships with like-minded brothers in Christ, find rewarding recreational activities, narrow your calling, and perhaps a smart girl will catch your eye! Aside from these, preparing for a specific discipline is the approach that some people take and one that certain people ought to take. For example, if God had called you to become a brick mason, then attending a technical school that teaches the mechanical arts would make sense. But since you want to pursue a profession that may require graduate work, and you are open to different possibilities, a Classical Christian liberal arts degree would be immensely valuable. In fact, it was designed to make you liberal, that is, ‘free.’

I don’t believe you, Dad. I bet all the great presidents had undergraduate majors in political science. Surely that’s what made them so great.

Actually, no. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and other great presidents studied the classics. I don’t think that America would have had such a formidable foundation without the classical education of our forefathers.

Some of the best presidents majored in classics?

To call it a ‘major’ would be anachronistic, but yes, they studied the classics: theology, Euclid’s elements, Shakespeare, philosophy, languages, history, and so on. For example, did you know that John Quincy Adams was known for his mastery of Ciceronian rhetoric? The lectures that he gave at Harvard on rhetoric are still in print today! To be honest, I wish that book was required reading for all presidential candidates. But that aside, we really didn’t start seeing majors regularly until somewhere around the time of the progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, who studied history and political science. His legacy is complicated, to say the least. And, if you look at the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy did not benefit from his International Affairs major from Harvard! An undergraduate major never guarantees one’s success in a field.

So, what does a Classical Christian education actually get me? I mean, I don’t want to be the next John Quincy Adams.

There are worse men to whom you could aspire, but to learn the ability to speak well, think critically, and confront ideas with sophistication…

I don’t want to be a rhetoritician, Dad!

Ha! You mean a rhetorician. Would you rather hear a speech by the Mount Rushmore men, or, let’s say, one of the last few presidents?

The Gettysburg Address is pretty astounding. Our recent presidents’ speeches are rarely that memorable.

I agree, and that’s partly because each is the product of a modern educational system that did not value the strong communicative arts that the Western tradition once promoted.

You know, that makes sense.

Think about it a different way. How much would you rely on a physician’s judgment if he cannot communicate the pros and cons of different treatments in a manner that is clear and ethical? Or would an attorney convince a jury to favor you if he has difficulty countering opposing viewpoints? How do you think the IRS would look upon tax returns filed by a CPA that does not view mathematics with objectivity? What about a preacher who can’t deliver sermons persuasively or biblically? What if your history teacher simply made you recite Wikipedia articles to get an A in the class?

You raise some good questions, and I am starting to see how this education enhances many disciplines. But I can’t really pursue any of those careers with a Classical Christian liberal arts degree.

Maybe not with a liberal arts degree by itself! That’s why graduate programs exist.A quality graduate program relies on a solid foundation that equipped you to communicate well, think critically, and assimilate skills on your own. Graduate school is where you narrow your studies. It requires a high level of thoughtfulness and virtue that ultimately not only serves you but also contributes to your broader community.

Okay. Now that I think about it, Mr. Parker is the Vice President of the bank. He told me that his major was Classical Studies, and he never went to graduate school. How did he learn to become a banker?

Yes! There are numerous fields where you learn on-the-job training that simply can’t be replicated in a classroom. Mr. Parker started out as a teller in college, and he kept climbing the ladder as he mastered finance. Many people have jobs that are not directly related to their undergraduate degrees! Employers today are looking for character, adaptability, and skills.

You make this degree sound as though it will prepare me for just about any career path that I choose.

That’s right.

But all my friends’ colleges have real majors! How do I know that Classical Christian Studies won’t lock me into a life as a monk?

That sounds like the problem that Joshua and Caleb ran into when they spied the Promised Land. ‘Everyone else is doing it, so it must be right.’ Isn’t that a fallacy? You see, modern education is utilitarian. While earning a major is by no means unethical, the modern system gives little attention to the basics of Western thought that have shaped our culture. The system cares little about your character. Now let’s get back to your  original question. What college major do you want to pursue?

Now that you mention it, these college applications don’t address character or spiritual issues. So maybe you’re onto something. I value a college education, but I don’t know what to study. I don’t know what career to pursue. Dad, I just haven’t had enough life experience to make that decision yet.

Ah, yes. That, my son, is wisdom.