Double major, double troubleWith registration a few weeks behind us and diplomas soon to be awarded, we thought it worthwhile to reflect on the phenomenon of double majoring. According to a statistic emblazoned on Duke’s admissions website, 83 percent of Duke students go beyond their major to earn at least one more major, minor or certificate. From an admissions perspective, this is a point of pride for our University—a badge of honor that celebrates students’ intellectual ambitions to pursue more than a single major. Double majoring may indeed be something to recognize, but we wonder if it does not come with some troubling cultural implications.
First, we question the motivations that inform a student’s decision to declare a double major. In the best case scenario—indeed, the one we wish were most common—students would elect to double major because they genuinely want to expand their intellectual horizons and to explore two disciplines about which they truly feel passionate. Some combinations of majors make intuitive sense—math and economics, for instance—and some students may feel that their knowledge of one field will be enhanced by studying the other. Other students pursue radically different majors, using one as a safety net and pursuing the other because it is what they genuinely want to study: their “passion major.” We also see a number of students stumbling into a second major because they have already taken so many classes in a particular field that seeking a major just makes sense.
Pursuing two majors might, however, simply be another manifestation of our resume-buffing culture, as it gives students a way to seek extra accreditation or protect themselves against an uncertain future. Considering applying to grad school but don’t know which one? Tack on another major to keep options open.
Whatever the reason, there are significant tradeoffs to doing major double duty. Signing off approximately 20 credits to two disciplines means significantly limiting one’s capacity for intellectual exploration—for taking classes completely outside of one’s comfort zone. If students want to undertake rigorous coursework in other disciplines, they can do so without satisfying the requirements needed to secure a major.
Although we have specific concerns about double majoring, the pitfalls of pursuing two majors reflect broader problems with majors in general. Not only do we overestimate the importance of majors, we also allow them to define us. In conversation, a student’s major is one of the first three things he or she utters. Our majors have become who we are, not what we do—in a way, they have become proxies for our identities. Admittedly, one’s major is an expression of some personal interest, but it does not reflect every interest or expertise he or she might have. Furthermore, parceling students into discrete categories inhibits intellectual exchange and makes interdisciplinary learning difficult.
We do not want to erode all boundaries between disciplines, but want those boundaries to soften somewhat so that students can share knowledge and perspectives with greater ease. If you truly want to expand your horizons, start a conversation with someone and ask them what they are truly passionate about. They may surprise you.