'Major' advice from a pro

Many parents are upset when their son or daughter, attending college, suddenly changes the "major," or field of concentration. This may signal a change in the student's after-college plans -- a different occupation or profession, indeed a different life.

Let me try to reassure parents that a temporary or permanent change of major may be good educationally as well as vocationally.

But first, how did the change come about? Who or what was responsible?

It may have been caused by discovery of a field not taught in high school that has great appeal. Or it may have been caused by a professor who made his or her field unusually interesting, even exciting. Or it may have been caused by a friend who was always talking about a certain course and made it sound appealing.

Yes, it may mean a shift in the student's lifetime career. More likely, however, it will mean taking a course or two in a field not thought of before, and then returning to preparation for the originally intended career. Yet the student's education will be all the richer, or broader, because of this tangential experience.

The freshman and sophomore years in college are the best time for exploration , along with satisfying curricular requirements. These may range from a foreign language and a science to American history and government.

But even in the junior and senior years, when emphasis is put on the now definitely chosen major, there is some opportunity to take courses in other fields.

Moreover, most colleges have what I consider the most important requirement, or at least a tie with the requirement in a foreign language. This is the "distribution requirement," which means that all students, regardless of their special interest, must take a certain amount of work, maybe only a single course , in such fields as history and literature.

Or there may be what is called a "core course," in which students learn something about the arts and sciences, philosophy, religion, and all the rest in a single historical package, moving at high speed from ancient times to the present.

Superficial though it may be, such a course, taken in the freshman year, gives students not only an overall view but an introduction to courses in many fields. One of these courses, taken the next year, may be what changes the student's major field from one to another.

What may look like indecisiveness in finally choosing that major may more optimistically be thought of as experimentation or gaining educational breadth.

After all, a college education involves two important factors: breadth and depth. Too much breadth could mean shallowness; but not enough breadth could mean cultural narrowness.

Ideally, there should be a balance of breadth and depth, especially in a liberal arts college. But my concern, which is why I am unworried about a student's changing majors during the first or second year of college, is for breadth.

After college, whether in graduate school or directly into a lifetime business or profession, there will be more and more specialization. But breadth , indicative of general knowledge, the truly educated person, in all too many instances is lacking.

So I suggest shopping around, as well as specializing, during those four important years in college, and especially in the first two. Whether or not there is a change of mind about the student's major field, there will be a broadenin g of knowledge, an enrichment of the mind.

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