The Lost Power of Undeclared

Matt Reed had a really smart column in today’s Inside Higher Ed, though that’s nothing new; he’s one of the writers I regularly turn to. Matt’s a community college leader in New Jersey, and really has worked through a lot of specifics that folks in more comfortable institutions have never needed to address. Today’s column is about the importance of being able to be an undeclared major, and the efforts he’s made to create an undeclared community college path that still qualifies for federal aid funding. As he put it, “The problem is that much of the time, students on the front end don’t really know what they want. That’s not their fault; if you’re sixteen or seventeen, how many options do you know in enough depth to say?  Some students just know, but many don’t, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.”

I didn’t know. I thought I did. I thought that I wanted to be an architect, but I had no idea what architects really did, and nobody in our community was an architect. Lots of factory workers, a bank teller, a phone lineman and two phone operators, but no architects in our neighborhood or in our church or among my classmates’ families. The high school drafting program, which I loved and was terrific at, was aimed at mechanical drafting, because being an industrial draftsman documenting machine parts was still a good, safe, indoor job in the 1970s, though it is no longer.

What I WAS, was interested in buildings, and the ways that people made decisions about them. Looking back now, from 45 years later, I could have told that kid that he should study architectural history, or anthropology, or material culture and folklore… but there was nobody around Muskegon, Michigan in the early ’70s who would have had that knowledge.

I think that the undeclared major has vast power to reveal the details of a student’s interest. It becomes a kind of archaeological dig into the meanings of nascent goals, the custom assembly of ideas and knowledge and methods. It allows us to discover ourselves.

At the college I worked at most recently, we did a significant overhaul of the “foundation curriculum” of our undergraduate degree programs, all four of which were aimed at areas of environmental design: architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and design studies. During those discussions, I argued strongly—and unsuccessfully—that all students should come in for the first year without a major, taking the same courses, and that after that year, they could choose the materials and scales and questions that most enlivened their interest in design. I know that I would have been dismissive of interior design as a young man, thinking of it as a career only for the feminine, whereas it has everything to do with questions of human use and satisfaction, far more than architecture. It would have been a lot closer to what I actually wanted (though still not as close as anthropology).

One of the arguments in favor of every student coming in as a declared major was that it would give them “a sense of purpose,” an argument similar to the “guided pathways” for curricular completion laid out in community colleges. The underlying idea in both cases seems to be that some students just don’t know enough to be safe in their uncertainty, that we need to lead them firmly toward knowable ends rather than give them room to discover.

But among my colleagues arguing for declared majors from day one, none of them had come from colleges that expected immediate declaration of majors. No, they went to places like MIT and Bennington and the University of Virginia, places where the vault of learning is left unlocked for every student to browse. They had once been trusted, as undergraduates, to productively learn themselves. To change their minds. To develop their minds.

I would not merely encourage an undeclared first year. I would require it. I would prohibit the selection of a major until thirty or forty credits had been achieved, credits designed specifically to learn one’s own dreams.

More on that tomorrow.