So, What's Your Major?
1987 Baccalaureate Address
College is a state of mind, an attitude, and an approximation. Because college is difficult to measure we often fall back on surrogates for the real thing: we admire buildings, cheer basketball teams, complain about courses and tests, and fuss about the requirements for a degree. Yet the time honored greeting of all undergraduates reveals the substance of college.
"So, what's your major," the boy says to the girl as they meet at a dorm party.
From that ritualized exchange undergraduates move rapidly to more interesting topics such as,
"Want to go out for a Pizza?",
but in the moment of indecision they revert to the fundamental academic basis of our association here, and to bridge the gap of the un-introduced they quickly meet on common ground,
"What's your major?"
The Structure of a College Education
College, then, results in a major, a field of study that gives students an academic identity and orients their intellectual direction as successful undergraduates. You who have succeeded in college life recognize that while the major provides an academic focus it represents only one of several academic concerns that shape a college education.
Fundamental to our understanding of college is the conviction that the four years of study constitute a complete thing, a recognizable artifact of knowledge and understanding. In small colleges the artifact of an undergraduate education can easily be seen in the catalog of courses and the specializations of the faculty, but in great universities the variety, depth, and complexity of subject and faculty inhibit such instant recognition.
College, at Indiana University, gives us a structure for learning and an understanding of knowledge. While we work to acquire specific information -- names and dates, chemical formulas, or literary plots - what we learn of enduring value is not the information itself but the ability to learn it. College is where we learn how to learn.
We know as part of our shared history and experience that learning requires two levels of skill: fundamental and specific.
The Cornerstones of Fundamental Skills
Fundamental skills are universal; they apply to all kinds of learning in many contexts. Essential to our ability to learn and use our learning, we teach fundamental skills at the beginning of our program.
Reading and writing, skills so basic we take them for granted and so difficult to do well we stand in awe of those who have mastered them, these are the first skills. College demands that we read critically and carefully and write clearly and persuasively.
Counting, an understanding of numbers, underlies much of the world we inhabit. Although we can all count, quantitative thinking, the ability to capture quantities, numerical relationships, and fundamental mathematical concepts comes naturally to but a few of us. College teaches us to count in reasonably sophisticated ways.
Language, even more than reading, writing, and counting, seems an obvious thing. We all talk, listen, and understand. Foreign language not only offers a glimpse of another linguistic world but forces us to confront the majesty and complexity of human linguistic diversity. To assume that our native language is at the core of human understanding, which is the fate of the monolingual, is to fail the test of collegiate education. We must also confront a foreign culture with the different values and social and economic conditions associated with another language.
Even with tools such as these, we still need to learn how to think. And here we find the most trouble. We all think we know how to think, for who, after all, doesn't think. To be sure, some think in ways that amaze or appall us, but doesn't everyone think? Thinking, it turns out, is a skill like any other. It can be learned and it improves with practice. So college requires study in critical thinking whether in formal logic, philosophy, or any another discipline emphasizing the rigor of thought and criticism.
These, then, constitute the fundamental skills of our college education: Reading and Writing, Counting, Foreign Language, and Critical Thinking. Each fundamental skill lays a cornerstone of our structure for learning, part of the foundation that will endure throughout our lives.
The Discipline of Specific Knowledge
Specific learning has a different purpose. Here we apply the fundamental skills to particular problems, collections of facts and information, and analytical opportunities. The knowledge we need throughout our lives is organized knowledge. And while the content and data that make up the total knowledge we have changes rapidly, the organization of that knowledge changes slowly.
The faculty organizes knowledge into disciplines represented by departments or schools charged with a consistent category of knowledge: History, Business, Law, Music, Biology, Math, Spanish, or Anthropology, each with its own perspective and each with its special technique for understanding.
Students sample a range of disciplines, not because they will remember the data learned forever, but because they need an understanding of the leaning technique specific to that discipline. The four years of college permit only a sample of the humanities, the social sciences, and the mathematical and natural sciences. But with that sample we confront and master the specific learning skills associated with each of these major groups of disciplines.
The arts and humanities, of course, teach us how to understand the unique characteristics of human expression. In literature or art, for example, we learn to relate experience to expression, to distinguish the contributions of imagination to understanding, and to learn to expand our own imaginations and intellectual reach by seeing through the eyes of others.
The social sciences apply a wide range of tools, some quantitative and others analytically descriptive, to an understanding of human organization and behavior. Sociology, political science, and economics, for example, seek to combine reasoning derived from mathematical or natural science and the humanities to the relatively intractable data of human affairs.
Fields such as mathematics, physics, psychology, or biology give us a world of knowledge governed by rigorous rules for the evaluation of evidence and the design of experiment. In the never ending cycle of hypothesis, experiment, result, revised hypothesis, experiment, result, the mathematical and natural sciences seek to identify the fundamental relationships of our physical universe.
With these cornerstones of the fundamental skills, we acquire the broad view of those disciplines that form the skeletal structure of our education and prepare us for the mastery of one substantial discipline in depth.
The Expertise of the Major
Since at least the sixteenth century we have lived in a world of experts. From the navigational skills of Christopher Columbus to the computer skills of Apple Computer's Steve Wozniak expertise has been the hallmark of our civilization. A college education must teach us how to become experts.
Expertise means the ability to know what there is to know. A major represents a first approximation at expertise. What matters in the major is not the complete knowledge of chemistry or Spanish literature but the process of getting control of that knowledge. Experts know what they need to know, know how to get it, and know when they have it.
We major in history or biology to get the tools of expertise. It doesn't much matter what the major is or how it might relate to a career goal we or our families may have. It doesn't matter because it is the ability to become an expert that is important, not the subject of the expertise. Given the universally transferable skills of expertise, if we can become an expert in history we know we can become an expert in anthropology or business management.
So when I overhear students ask each other,
"What's your major?"
I smile, knowing that all is well because those students have begun their learning how to learn.
In Search of Work
Students often worry about jobs. At graduation time we often hear another refrain among students,
"Do you have a job yet?"
Sometimes a student will complain,
"Gee, I have this degree in biology and I don't have a job. Maybe I should have majored in electronics?"
Well, maybe so, but we should never measure our education by our first job.
College teaches us the skills for success at any job. College gives a lifetime pattern for understanding and knowledge, not an entry level job in a profession. The measure of a collegiate education comes five or ten years after graduation when we ask,
"What should we have done to make College better?"
Most often our graduates, ten years to twenty years out, reply,
"Teach more reading, writing, counting, foreign language, and critical thinking. Emphasize the major less, the breadth more. Focus on issues of learning and thinking rather than on specific information."
So when we hear the refrain,
"How come I don't have a job on the day I graduate from college?",
we are sympathetic but not overly concerned. Practically all of us are doing things we like to do and want to do within five years after our graduation.
People and Place at Indiana University
We who have learned at Indiana University, have enjoyed a special privilege. College can take place anywhere for a college education is a state of mind, an idea that can happen anywhere there are students and teachers. But Indiana University offers an extraordinary environment for learning, a place whose character expresses its purpose.
Many things make this a great university and Baccalaureate gives us a moment to reflect on the great gift that is this institution.
Indiana University has both outstanding faculty talent and exceptional staff. The faculty, collected from around the world for their expertise and commitment to learning, represent this institution's greatest resource. The faculty are creative and imaginative in their teaching and research, industrious in their service to the institution and the public, and cranky and stubborn in their commitment to their dreams.
Faculty, however sophisticated and refined, are dreamers, in most cases passionate dreamers. They dedicate their remarkable talents and skills, to the fulfillment of the dream of research and teaching, and when required by the realities of existence to compromise on that dream, they become stubborn and cranky. Less cranky or stubborn, they would be less passionate defenders of their dreams.
This institution's staff nurtures the institution and its students. It is the staff who make the place work, guide the students, and provide the continuity and character that is Indiana University. If the faculty offer academic distinction and intellectual excellence the staff provide the University with its continuing presence and personality.
But a university without its students would be an institution without a soul. Each generation of students brings new life, new perspectives, and a renewal of energy. Never here long enough to become tired of the excitement of knowledge, the succeeding generations keep the university young, even as the faculty and staff remain and grow older. You who graduate represent the culmination of the never ending cycle that builds and rebuilds the architecture of knowledge. Each of you, in acquiring your own version of the structure of learning, leaves with us a better understanding of how we must change and improve.
The success and productivity of the faculty, staff, and students depend greatly on the character of the place. Indiana University in Bloomington is a place like no other. In the rush of classes, social events, meetings, and requirements, many of us fail to stop and reflect on the place that makes all that activity possible. What value can we place on trees, limestone, brick, and grass? What significance for education are the Memorial Union, the Arboretum, Woodburn Hall, and the Art Museum?
To have visited many other institutions is to recognize the peculiar genius that is the Bloomington campus. Itself a work of art, it reflects a sense of grace and charm, projects an understanding of the human encounter required for education, and shows that the place can reflect the values that inspire the institution.
This campus speaks to each of us in different ways. Its central quad with Law and Bryan Hall on one side; the Old Library, Student Building, Maxwell and Owen Halls along the north edge; with Wiley, Kirkwood, and Lindley Halls to the East; and Swain on the South; all surrounding the woods, this quad speaks to the traditions of a great university. The Well House confirms the institution's insistence on preserving the memory of its founders and benefactors as well as the generations of faculty, staff, and students who have built this place, and the woods stand as a permanent monument to Indiana University's commitment to maintaining the space for beauty and reflection.
This Memorial Union represents a student commitment to education and the value of constructive cooperation. Indiana's Union may be the biggest in the world, but no Union I have visited is at the same time as welcoming and comfortable, as clean and cared for. Students, generations of students, take care of their Union, reflecting not only a pride in this place but more importantly a pride in themselves.
At Indiana University, we inevitably recognize the power of the place and its remarkable impact on the quality of the life and learning that occur here.
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We who have been privileged to grow and learn here owe Indiana University our respect. We have a right to be proud of our contributions to this place, but especially we have the obligation to continue the learning that our time at Indiana University has prepared us to do.