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 Pedagogy, Philosophy, and Nonsense

A Major Is More Minor Than You Think by Forrest Poston


When you're five years old and somebody asks what you want to be when you grow up, adults will call any response cute from cowboy to president. There's a little laughter and everyone forgets because they don't take it seriously. Somewhere after puberty, that's one of the many things that changes. Suddenly family members and teachers state or imply that you should know, must know, what you plan to major in and what you're going to do from now to retirement. Too many of my students have started college hounded by the feeling that of all the people in the world, they're the inadequate ones because they don't know what they want---except not to grow up. Family and teachers need to learn when to be quiet, and all their questions, prodding, and suggestions are doing a dis-service. Guess what? There's no reason to expect anyone to know what they want to be or do when they've had no real help understanding who they are or what the choices can be. Some do, and that's fine. Some think they do, and that can be a problem. Some know they don't, but someone told them to make a choice and stick with it, and that's stupid.

Go back a hundred years or so, and the process was easier simply because there weren't that many choices. For men, the chances were they would follow a father or uncle. For women, career was less often even a choice. Most teenagers weren't even expected to consider college, and most colleges didn't even offer American Literature, much less Sports Medicine or Computer Science. Survival was a central issue followed by getting ahead. For many, those are still issues, but if you've made it into college they don't have to be the issues anymore. College is almost synonymous with choice, or at least it can be, and that's part of the problem. The number of basic choices is overwhelming, and you don't even have a clue what the sub-categories are, what you can actually do with that major once you get it.

No problem once you adapt a new attitude. Forget the idea of knowing what you want. You probably do know to some degree, but the more you swirl the waters with frustration, doubt, and fear, the less likely you are to see it or remember it. College isn't about knowing. If it was, you wouldn't need it. College is about finding out. It's about taking a philosophy course, chemistry, art, literature, just to see. One of my nursing majors told me she hated going to her psychology course because everytime she went it made her want to change her major to psychology. So? Maybe she should. Maybe not. Maybe it's a clue that there are ways to mix things. Maybe it isn't just pick a major that leads straight to a set job, regular promotions, retirement.

I'm going to take an easy path here and use some highway metaphors. (Sometimes I think anything can be understood with road metaphors.) Neither college nor life are an interstate highway. You don't hit the on-ramp, set the cruise control and kick back until the off-ramp. Besides, who really wants that for the whole trip. Depending on where you live, there's a fair chance you've spent some time out on the backroads, maybe out where there are no roads. Where I grew up, there was the interstate, the old road, and the old, old road to choose from on almost any trip. Then there were the various dirt roads that might or might not go anywhere anymore. You go out and pick a turn. Turn again and again. Maybe you hit a dead end, so you back up just a bit and make another choice. Sometimes you pull in at the dead end and do things you don't plan to tell your parents, anymore than they've told you about some of their travels.

Sooner or later you come out back on the asphalt. You may enter town from the north rather than south, but you're there with adventures to share. You didn't worry too much about which road because you could always change your mind. So what's different now? Not as much as you may think. Okay, you probably don't want to spend the next couple of decades in school, but you can investigate a lot of backroads in four years, maybe five. Call some of them deadends or even mistakes. It's not life-threatening if the graphic design class doesn't work out, and someday the one thing you remember from that class may be the final answer on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," or whatever show has taken its place by then.

Most majors aren't going to lead straight into one and only one job anyway. Over the years, you'll change jobs, almost certainly change careers, more than once. The person you are at the end of your freshman year is a lot different from when you entered college, better and worse. You've done some good things, and you've screwed up. You've probably done one or two things that were really stupid, and you're lucky to get a shot at your sophomore year. You're going to screw up more in the future. Who doesn't? Maybe you still think your parents are perfect, but if you knew all the mistakes they've made you'd find it a little easier to laugh and take the next road. And twenty years later, your major won't make nearly as much difference as you expected. You really don't have to get it right and perfect before age 22. Well, if you do, then I'm really screwed up, and so is everybody I know.

Relax a bit. Take some shots at different things with your eyes open. Trust yourself and the universe just a bit. Once you do, there's a fair chance you'll hear a voice from a younger self remind you what you really always wanted to do but were afraid to try. I guess that's the real kicker. Most of the times my students have hit on that thing they always wanted, it's what they were most afraid to try. Too many of us would rather succeed at what we hate than risk failing at what we love.

Joseph Campbell used to tell his students to follow their bliss, which too many people think is the same as if it feels good, do it, but bliss is different. Bliss tends to mean falling down an awful lot before learning to walk. Bliss means doing what you really most need to do even if people laugh, even if you don't see the money, even if your friends are going another way. Every road has potholes and speed bumps, some really nasty traps. Your choice is whether you want to suffer from the trials on somebody else road or your own. Yeah, trials do lead to revelations. On your road, they lead to your revelations. On somebody else's road, they lead to the revelation that you're on somebody else's road. One last aphorism: if you're willing to make your own mistakes, you'll also make your own successes.



     Would you like to know when the site gets updated? Drop me an e-mail, and I'll add you to the list. Much of my writing has been for the antiques site lately, but I have a long list of essays in assorted stages of revision for this site. The people who e-mail often apologize because they assume I'm swamped with e-mails. I only wish it were true. I'm a teacher from the marrow out, so give me questions. I'm a writer, so I also need an audience. Sometimes that means applause, sometimes rotten tomatoes.

     From time to time, a student decides to use some of my ideas, or perhaps they even quote me in a paper. Great, I'll take what fame and traces of immortality I can get. However, I should also warn such students that my ideas are not always the things that your teachers want to hear. I'm a stubborn idealist, and that puts me at odds with quite a bit of education theory and literary criticism. Sure, I think I'm right about some things, and I'm sometimes convinced of my own brilliance, but don't jump into the fire blindfolded.


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