Ghavri: The Pitfalls of the Practical

by Anmol Ghavri | 11/3/15 7:00pm

Dartmouth is a liberal arts college, yet some students approach it as if it were a vocational school. Only by freeing yourself from the fallacy of the “practical major” can you truly take advantage of Dartmouth’s amazing liberal arts curriculum and undergraduate teaching. Your major is not intended to make you an expert in your field or prepare you for a specific career. Rather, a Dartmouth education is intended to teach you how to think critically, write with clarity, lead others and succeed in any career.

Students at the College are pursuing undergraduate degrees during a time of upheaval in American higher education. High school graduates are being encouraged to major in “marketable” fields, pursue vocational training or skip college altogether to avoid rising costs. This atmosphere has given rise to the division of academic fields into “practical” and “impractical” subjects.

High school graduates are being encouraged to major in the hard sciences, computer science or business by parents, friends and even political leaders like Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush — who at a town hall meeting in South Carolina remarked, “Hey, that [psychology] major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts ... but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.” Bush’s statement seems quite ironic in light of the fact he received a liberal arts degree in Latin American studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

Concerns about finding post-graduate jobs and accumulating too much student loan debt have made the views expressed by Bush persuasive. While these are valid and real fears, we should distinguish the nationwide problems of student debt and different hiring outcomes across majors from the local student loan and post-graduate employment rates at the College, as well as our peer institutions more generally.

Indeed, it would make sense to spend your time preparing for a career if you attend a university with higher-than-average student loan debt levels or below-average hiring rates. This would help a student to work toward a defined career path, ensuring not only that they can secure a post-graduate job, but also pay off excessive loans. That is my take on the average American state research university, but Dartmouth and its peers are different. The College has an average student loan debt of $16,339, much less than the national average of $29,000.

Moreover, Dartmouth graduates of all majors — including psychology, math, government, history, economics, English, sociology and philosophy — find themselves working in careers in business, law, journalism and media, medicine, government and more. The College does not offer business, journalism or other pre-professional majors for specific career paths — something that should be made clear to prospective students. Distributive requirements help to hone both the hard and soft skills of all students, and the language requirement certainly prepares students to compete on a global stage. Career preparation often comes through extracurricular and networking activities. Students unsure of the careers that certain majors can lead to have access to many excellent resources, including the Dartmouth Alumni Directory’s Career Network.

Taking individual classes that could provide useful knowledge for particular careers you may be interested in is an excellent idea, and following the pre-health track in addition to your academic major if you are interested in attending medical school is required. But majoring in a field that you are passionate about makes you a more knowledgeable and fulfilled person. Spending four years studying something you do not enjoy would be a waste of time, and enthusiasm for a subject — be it computer science or classics — will encourage you to do better academically.

At Dartmouth, an engineering major does not an engineer make, nor does majoring in economics make you an economist. All courses share the common aim of teaching students an abstract way of thinking. Dartmouth, in the best tradition of the liberal arts, prepares all of its undergraduates for all career paths. All students graduate with an ability to lead, articulate their ideas, innovate and adapt to changing times. Some math majors find themselves attending law school, and some history majors find themselves working in finance. Dartmouth is a liberal arts college and is meant to create lifelong learners who are intellectually curious and passionate about their subjects — do not treat it like a vocational school. No major is more “practical” than another, so study what sparks your passion.