Campus News

Campus Crosstalk Examines the Pros and Cons of Double-Majoring

Story posted November 27, 2000

Choosing a major is a critical decision for every college student, one that deeply impacts the character of his or her educational experience. When the time arrives to choose a major (second semester, sophomore year), 30% of Bowdoin students declare a double-major. But is double-majoring contrary to the goals of a liberal arts education?

This was the question debated at Campus Crosstalk, Friday, November 17, at Common Hour. Arguing in favor of double-majoring were Professor John Turner, Romance Languages, and John Hahn í01. Arguing against double-majoring were Professor Clifton Olds, Art History, and Dominique Alepin í03.

Dominique Alepin, the afternoonís first speaker, warned that "the liberal arts education is on the brink of extinction" due to studentsí obsession with professional development. Many students at liberal arts colleges choose the double-major as a way of staying competitive, yet "[i]n training for a specific career one risks sacrificing an education." Alepin attacked the double-major for its being limiting: by limiting the variety of courses a student may take, it limits his or her ability to develop as a human being. A double-major may turn out a skilled, but not very visionary, individual. Responsible individuals, she stated, need to know more than how to do a job well. They need both "the depth of understanding, as well as the breadth of vision" attainable through a liberal arts education. Quoting C.S. Lewis, Alepin pointed out that with its depth and breadth of opportunities, a liberal arts education can "create better humans" and will "preserve civilization by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens." She drew on the metaphor of a spectrometer, which takes plain white light and divides it into a rainbow of colors: "A liberal arts education is your spectrometer. . . . Would you rather go through life seeing just white light?"

John Hahn, who spoke next, addressed the three out of ten students who double-major and asked, "Are you getting more bang for your institutional dollar?" and asserted, "Itís more profound than that." A double-major, he argues, is a unique structure: the fusion of two disciplines of study that are complementary in nature. "The knowledge of one discipline enhances the depth and breadth of another, and vice versa." Hahn questioned what the traditional liberal arts education entailed, using Aristotleís seven liberal arts categories as its basis. When he examines Aristotleís treatise (Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Music, Theory, Geometry, Astronomy), he finds little in the list that is reflective of his course load. But today, a liberal arts education is evolving: "[T]he liberal arts education is alive and well, due in part that the structure of the double-major serves as a pragmatic solution of compromise between the two extremes of a marketized education and the traditional forms of liberal arts curricula of well-roundedness, and breadth and depth." The double-major offers the best of both worlds, he asserts. It is a compromise in the structure that allows students to leave Bowdoin as marketable individuals of depth and breadth.

Professor Clifton Olds asked, "Why enroll in a liberal arts college?" The answer: "To learn many things about the natural world, the arts, public affairs, and about oneself." One also presumably wants to learn something in depth; thus, the idea of "the major." But since the goals of a liberal arts are both depth AND breadth, he sees the double-major working against that second goal, breadth. He offered the scenario of the Chemistry/Economics double-major, a combination which has such a demanding list of requirements that up to 25 of the studentís courses (75%) would all be limited to the same area. Meanwhile, at Bowdoin, there are 25 other academic departments (2/3 of the Bowdoin catalog) that will be out-of-bounds. [Later, in his rebuttal, Professor John Turner pointed to the Chemistry/Economics major as an extreme example, and not necessarily indicative of the double-major in general.]

Olds recalled asking students, "Why are you double-majoring?" Too often the answer was, "It will look good on my transcript." Olds was quick to point out that prospective graduate schools and employers assign little value to the box on a studentís transcript that lists major(s); what they focus on are grades, a point later corroborated by Turner. "It is their minds, not their majors" that are of import. So will having a single-major hinder a studentís advancement plans? Not at all, Olds claims. "The day is past when law schools expect their applicants to be Government majors." Medical schools, business schools, do not care what an applicantís major was, but about the quality of the applicantís mind. The worst element of the double-major, Olds says, is that it defeats a studentís purpose for attending a liberal arts college by severely restricting opportunities. Avoid being the second semester senior forced to bypass an interesting elective like Greek Philosophy or History of Jazz, because you MUST take the last two courses required to fulfill the double-major. A satisfactory compromise might be the major-minor. "Your time at Bowdoin shouldnít be a time to limit your horizons, but a time for expanding them."

In defending the double-major, Professor John Turner held up as an example a certain Geology/Spanish double-major who wrote honors projects in both majors, defended them both, and received highest honors in both, all on the same day. How did that student relate those two seemingly disparate majors? By writing a thesis in Spanish on the contributions of German scientists in the early 18th century toward the independence of South American countries. "It is when we connect ideas, that we are really learning," he maintained. But is a double-major consistent with the idea of a liberal arts education? Yes, he argues. "If one is good, two is better. . . . A pair of majors can provide a useful framework to the exploration of Bowdoinís broad curriculum, by providing the opportunity to study with some seriousness two different areas, and perhaps more importantly, explore the connections between them."

"It is between things, often, that truth seems to lie," he continued. "The growing interconnectedness of scholarship today is a model." The second major provides a second organizing principle offering a different way to see the world and experience it. Turner used the example of a student who double-majored in biology and Spanish, and went on to study the diseases of maize in Mexico and Central America, did not need an interpreter to do his research, and paid for grad school by being a Spanish teaching assistant. Such other less obvious double-majors as Music/Math and Theater/History produce similarly fascinating insights about the world that could not be gained through the study of one field alone. "Good minds are often drawn in many different directions," he observed, and this should be encouraged.

While Turner would not go so far as to require a double-major, conceding it is not for everyone, he is committed to the educational advantage of the double-major option. While Olds said he was not arguing to abolish the double-major, and concedes that a student can pursue two areas and take a wide variety of classes, he must object to the double-majorís tendency to limit the breadth of studies. He encourages every student, whether a single- or a double-major, to consider the consequences and choose wisely.

The Campus Crosstalk was sponsored by Student Government. Student Government representatives Kyle Stoller and Jennifer Cromwell were the facilitators.

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