Pre-professional Majors, Liberal Arts Model in Conflict

Drew Edmonds

Infographic by Julie Peterson
Infographic by Julie Peterson

This article was co-authored by Ben Caldwell.

The liberal arts model of education is a hallmark of Whitman’s identity, but recently the value of a multidisciplinary, less career-oriented liberal arts education has come into question. In recent years, faculty and students have discussed the pros and cons of entering college with a specific major and career plan already in mind.

As graduating students continue to take on massive amounts of debt and struggle to enter the workforce in the aftermath of the economic downturn, Associate Professor of Politics Jeanne Morefield observes that many of her students report being overwhelmed and worried about the transition into their professional lives. Now, more than ever before, she has students asking to miss class because of job and internship interviews.

“That never used to happen. And, frankly, I worry that students are getting the sense that their primary job here is to be networking and working toward getting a job rather than going to class. That makes me nervous,” said Morefield.

Whitman students frequently arrive in the fall of their first year set on a major, willing to take alternative classes but focused on a long term professional track.

First-year Noah Porter came to Whitman certain he would major in chemistry.

“[Chemistry] is something I’ve liked for a long time and studied for a long time, too. It’s something I could see myself doing in the future, research or working in the sciences. Also it’s something that’s challenging academically,” he said.

Porter expressed his appreciation for Whitman’s multidisciplinary approach, but he also worries that in addition to all his science requirements it will be difficult to take challenging courses outside his major. He plans to attend summer school to knock out some of his prerequisites.

“There are a lot of classes I’d really like to be taking at Whitman but that I don’t think I’ll have time for, or might be too much, considering my schedule,” said Porter.

For Porter it’s not as simple as a choice between two paths: the specialized pre-professional focus or the broad liberal arts experience. He’s interested in exploring a range of different subjects but has no doubt about what career field he wants to be in from the moment he graduates to the day he retires.

It’s this type of mindset that worries Morefield.

“There’s something scary and limiting when we start thinking of majors in terms of career paths … No majors are set up for that kind of tracking. If you go into it expecting you are going to get skills that are going to prepare you for a particular job right after you graduate, in exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, it doesn’t happen that way,” said Morefield.

Though Porter could have followed a more direct path to his chosen career at the technical institute to which he applied, he ultimately chose not to.

“That’s very enticing, but I’m still not sure if that’s what I would want for my life or my career. I have a good amount of faith in Whitman’s education … to give me opportunities in the future for a good career and to educate me in a way that makes my skill set useful.”

If Whitman’s students are still interested in the liberal arts experience, but more and more of them are coming to college with specific professions in mind, can the college give them what they are looking for? Morefield argues that the two mindsets are mutually exclusive.

“I think we are inadvertently scaring students into limiting their choice of major by suggesting some majors are better for careers than others … I think scaring students into thinking that if they don’t line up their career track right now that they are doomed is the wrong way to go about it. It defeats the whole mission of the liberal arts,” said Morefield.

Fortunately, the statistics show that not everyone is scared. Though the hard sciences and other quantitative-research-based majors like economics do have more members than the arts and humanities, overall Whitman majors are relatively evenly distributed throughout the student population. In last year’s graduating class, each of the 33 possible majors was represented by less than 10 percent of the student population, except for biology at 12.7 percent.

But according to some students and faculty, there are still changes that need to be made by the school in order to alleviate the pressure on students surrounding particular majors and filling their schedules with resumé-worthy material.

The Whitman Student Engagement Center has long been responsible for involving students in career-related opportunities.

“We just want to be conduits to how students take things they like in college and spend much of their life connected to them,” said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean of student engagement.

Morefield agrees that the SEC is helpful for many students, but she remains wary about overwhelming students with too much information.

“There is so much out there that is available to them … I think we need to be worried about encouraging students to think that if they don’t land an internship right now they will never have a good job. Inadvertently, that is the message they are getting,” says Morefield.

Leavitt claims he wants the same thing Morefield does. He says the SEC is about empowering students with the confidence to follow their passion and use it as guidance in all aspects of their life including the professional world.

“The SEC has probably not done as good of a job at saying [passion] is the fundamental driver, but we are all about helping students be confident that if you follow something you’re really excited about, it’s going to pay off,” said Leavitt.

According to Leavitt, witnessing the vast range of professional careers Whitman alumni have pursued after graduation has offered him new insight into the value of a liberal arts degree in any field, regardless of the major.

“A liberal arts education is what allows students to be comfortable with the reality of what the world offers,” said Leavitt.

It isn’t just the SEC and professors like Morefield promoting the value of a liberal arts degree in the professional world. Employers from both the private and nonprofit sectors are saying the same thing.

In a survey among 318 employers conducted by Hart Research Associates last year, 80 percent agreed that regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. Three quarters of the group also said they would recommend a liberal arts education to young people they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Leavitt is excited but not surprised to hear this type of feedback from the employers in the workforce.

“We are pretty confident when we hear from leaders of the business and nonprofit sector projecting out what it’s going to take for their organizations to thrive. The list of things they come up with is basically what Whitman offers,” he said.

Some students are frustrated with the system and structure of education at Whitman, but they still believe strongly in the liberal arts philosophy. Porter claims the problem is not the liberal arts ideology, but the college’s manner of enforcing it. While he is excited to take classes outside of his major, he feels strict requirements often force him to register for courses to meet distribution requirements, regardless of his interest.

“It’s also challenging for some majors that have demanding schedules that oftentimes require planning from the first semester of [the first] year onward. It’s frustrating to see how many classes you have to take in the future and recognizing you’re going to be doing a solid four classes a semester, plus a few semesters of extra work, and possibly summer schooling,” said Porter.

Senior Nicky Khor told a similar story. At first he had intended to double major in English and theatre, but the acting classes he was interested in represented only a small fraction of the classes required to complete the theatre major. He instead opted for a major, English, that would allow him more freedom to take the classes that mattered to him.

“I saw that if I took all the requirements for the [theatre] major, I wouldn’t be able to take the specialized classes I wanted to take, for my own value. So that’s why I decided to forgo the major. [It] would have obstructed my passion,” said Khor.

Statistically, student interest in the full range of the liberal arts is alive and well at Whitman, but individual experiences reveal that there can be conflict between preparing for post-graduate life and pursuing a broader range of interests.

Morefield hopes students remain willing to follow their hearts.

“Do what you love. You ultimately want to get a job that you love and you want to spend your time at Whitman doing what you love. Don’t cage yourself in,” said Morefield.