Originally published in the June 18, 1999 issue of the
The Chronicle of Higher Education
I chose my undergraduate major by picking courses rather than a discipline.
One night in 1994, during my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania,
I spent three hours reading the names and descriptions of every course offered
to undergraduates. I marked with a stripe anything that even vaguely appealed
to me. I circled the courses I found really interesting. I starred the ones
I absolutely had to take. Then I compared my lists to the requirements for
the majors they suggested. The requirements for history were minimal and
flexible and allowed me to include a number of courses outside the department;
thus, I became a history major.
Like many freshmen, I had played the new-major-each-week game. I had considered
Judaic studies, English, and then American history. It was in reading the
requirements for American history that I discovered the option of submatriculation,
which allowed a student to enter the graduate program in history while still
an undergraduate, and to get an M.A. at the same time as the B.A. I examined
the various college, major, and concentration-within-major requirements,
took note of the Advanced Placement credits I'd already earned, and did
the math: I could major in diplomatic history, submatriculate, and earn
a master's degree -- all in three-and-a-half years. College was supposed
to take four years, so that discovery blew my mind. I knew what I was going
It took a few months for me to realize the obvious: I don't like diplomatic
history. And majoring in diplomatic history would mean taking numerous courses
that did not sound interesting, while not being able to take many that did.
It was at that point that I read the course catalogue cover to cover, settled
on the generic history major, and filled out my declaration-of-major card.
Four years after I got to Penn, I graduated magna cum laude with a B.A.
My degree looks good on paper, and I don't regret my decision. For the most
part, I enjoyed the classes I took. I learned a lot, and I honed the thinking
skills promised by a liberal-arts education. Yet I don't feel like a history
major, and I never really did.
The classes that I got to count as history courses -- whether they were
taught in the history department or not -- were: "Americans and Their Civilization,"
"Sociology of Jewry," "History of American Law," "Afro American History,"
"17th Century Intellectual History," "Jazz: Style and History," "Urban University-Community
Relationships," "Advanced Placement American History," an independent study
of the history of the kibbutz, and "Classic Texts in American Popular Culture."
Were those courses related in some profound way, or did I merely squeeze
my way through a crack in the regulations? Have I benefited from taking
those courses as a collection, beyond the value of each individual course?
Was my liberal interpretation of requirements an asset or a detriment to
my education? Do I have anything in common with anyone else who studied
history? What do the faculty members who define the degree and teach the
courses expect each of us to come away with? And what, ultimately, is the
discipline of history all about?
Perhaps one day I will try to find answers to those questions. For now,
I am more interested in their existence, and the fact that they weren't
addressed as part of my undergraduate curriculum. Surely there were reasons
behind the requirements for the history major -- and, I suspect, heated
debate when the requirements were set -- yet the reasons weren't covered
in the literature I got as an undergraduate trying to give my education
some direction. No professor mentioned in a lecture how his or her class
connected to the field. No adviser suggested that I read an article in a
scholarly journal on the justification for the study of history. No one
showed me a mission statement for the department.
The faculty members of the history department actually changed the requirements
shortly after I declared my major, tightening them up and demanding that
students choose a concentration within the major. I was grandfathered in
under the old rules, but nowhere in the literature could I find the reasons
for the changes and why I might benefit from voluntarily following the new
Nearly a year after graduation, when I made the move from a series of temporary
positions to a real job, one of my classmates asked, "Did you ever think
we'd graduate from Penn and be making less than $25,000 a year?"
I hadn't. The myth that precedes even the process of applying to college
is that a diploma is a ticket. A liberal-arts degree from a top university
guarantees that you'll always have a decent job with a good salary. You
don't learn about the benefits of internships or graduate school or research
assistantships or informational interviews until after you've bought into
that myth. Then you may decide -- as I did -- that those options aren't
relevant to your goals. It is easy to make it through four years of college
without learning otherwise; only when we graduate and a job isn't handed
to us on a silver platter together with our diploma does reality make its
I entered college with grand beliefs about learning for learning's sake.
I was there to immerse myself in an intellectual environment, engage in
debates, and soak up knowledge. I was involved in one of the most virtuous
activities possible; my future would find me. I had also been writing fiction
seriously since my senior year of high school. I was confident that my writing
would eventually make its way up the best-seller list, and I fully expected
to have a novel published before I graduated. At any rate, I never truly
believed that I would have to go out and get a job.
Naive? Yes. But in addition to the myths about education, there are myths
about writing and writers, and about genius being discovered. We are taught
that the truly exceptional escape the fate of the masses, and my goal was
to be truly exceptional.
What I needed, as I made choices throughout college based on myths and mistaken
beliefs, was a gentle interrogation. Why are you here? Where are you going?
Are you sure you can get there this way? Could there be a better way? Only
after spending months living on my own did I learn how a paycheck relates
to rent and taxes and food, how much I need to earn to maintain my frugal
lifestyle. Only after spending five years wrestling with a novel did I learn
that many first novels are really just the first to be published, that many
writers have shoved previous manuscripts in the back of their closets.
While those hard-earned lessons were certainly character-building, an early
conversation with the right person, or with a person who was able to lead
me to the right resources, could have resulted in a crash course in economics
and personal finance, and a flurry of reading about writers' lives. I would
have been asking myself throughout college how I might balance my aspirations
as a writer with the responsibility of making a living, and I would have
been considering courses, extracurricular activities, and summer jobs not
only in terms of their immediate benefits but also in terms of how they
might contribute to a realistically sketched future.
Instead, I learned some lessons the hard way, picked up others from books
and conversations, and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.
My job title is one I never aspired to and usually don't acknowledge in
conversation: secretary. Although my job in the mechanical-engineering department
at Tufts University does give me the flexibility to tackle creative projects,
such as designing the department's World-Wide Web site, most of what I do
could probably be handled by someone with only a high-school diploma. I'm
here because, in exchange for 35 hours of work each week, Tufts pays me
enough to live on. I'm treading water while I contemplate my next move.
What do I want? How do I get it? Those two questions are at the core of
a proactive education. They don't start being important when you enter college
or stop being important when you leave, but they should have a home within
the gates of higher education. A student who takes the initiative to ask
those questions should be met by professors, advisers, and career counselors
who are willing and able to guide her. In my ideal university, every freshman
would enter with the draft of an individual mission statement, and every
senior would leave with a much-revised mission statement and a map for the
I thought for a long time that it was only the liberal-arts students who
needed maps to find their futures. After all, the engineering students knew
enough in high school to apply to engineering programs, and nearly everything
was laid out for them from that point on -- from which classes to take,
to the multitude of job offers that they would receive. I was wrong, as
I discovered when I started asking students, "Why are you studying mechanical
Their reasons were varied, having as much to do with the pressures of parents
and high-school teachers as with their own interests. Their early expectations
of what the program would be like generally hadn't matched what they were
being taught. Although their career plans were more focused and more likely
to lead to high-paying jobs, the engineering students were just as confused
as the rest of us when it came to what they wanted and how to get it.
My conversations with students have resulted in "The Unofficial Pocket Guide
to Mechanical Engineering at Tufts." The guide -- a collaborative project
two seniors and I undertook, with the help of 10 other students -- is being
given out to freshmen as they explore possible majors; it is also on the
The guide includes a message about the need to be proactive in your education,
a discussion of what you should expect to get out of the mechanical-engineering
major, and tidbits such as advice about the usefulness of an economics minor
or undergraduate research. The nearly unanimous reaction to the guide from
upperclassmen has been, "I wish I had had this as a freshman."
There is always going to be a gap between what is taught in classes and
what any student needs to learn. Everyone in academe must do his or her
best to make students aware of that gap, and to fill in as much of it as
possible. For instance, departments should rewrite the literature about
their programs, spelling out the justifications for the requirements. Professors
should make a point of engaging each of their students in conversation,
and might write essays for the campus newspaper about their own research.
Career counselors and resident advisers should encourage freshmen to think
early about the big picture, sponsoring discussions among students and plastering
provocative articles and lists of resources on the walls of dorm bathrooms.
Alumni could return to campus and talk about how they managed to pay the
rent for the first five years after college, and what they wish they'd done
A lone student asking questions about her education is not likely to get
very far. Much better off is the student surrounded by people who encourage
such questions -- and who occasionally even initiate the discussion.