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by William H. Benson

May 28, 2009

     The graduation season is now behind us, and a new school year and college looms ahead for the graduates, some weeks hence. This summer the new crop of high school graduates will arrive at a decision they have been mulling over for months—what subject will they major in. The act of choosing one major precludes choosing all the others: in order to enroll at the university we are compelled to be selective.

     This decision has an overpowering impact upon students’ lives that carries forward for decades. Thirty-five years ago, the student who majored in psychology has struggled ever since with a succession of jobs—at a big discount store, as a truck driver, and now he is a custodian at the post office. Another enrolled in physical education classes, never located a job in a school, and now barely survives as a handy man. Another studied English literature, has taught English in a Denver metro high school ever since, and now counts the years and days until she can retire. 

     Choose wisely, perhaps a subject with broad commercial appeal, for your choice will echo forward through the decades of your life and your children’s lives, in terms of earning potential, personal gratification versus the misery index, and where you can live.

     There are few rocket scientists in rural America, only a smattering of brain surgeons there, but most small towns have schools that need teachers, banks that need bankers, and offices that require attorneys or realtors or accountants. If you want to live in a small town, you might plan your major around the jobs that exist there.

     The job market degrades us all; it forces us to accept the job that is available where we find ourselves, not necessarily that job for which the university has trained us.

     The universities and colleges of America are world class, and they do an excellent job of preparing people for the professions. Yet, they do an even better job of pulling open the doors marked wisdom and pointing to the treasures contained within the world. The university is a depository of human knowledge that the wisest humans have accumulated painstakingly over the ages of human existence, and it is available, only for the asking.

     The perceptive student asks, “Where else can I go and read all day?” Others show up the first day at college with a contradictory attitude. “What I don’t know isn’t worth knowing,” they might say, and then defy anyone to teach them a thing, but at college, curiosity is a prerequisite.

     “There are whole areas of knowledge which, if we have any curiosity or sense of life at all, we crave to explore.” Each area of knowledge is a new world—a series of caves that opens wider and wider.

     Sometimes the research may lead us into places we may not want to go. We are forced to visualize, to see with new eyes, for example, the sweeping changes of the historical past, the intricacies contained within the living cell, the power of great literary works, the symmetry of a chemical molecule, and the transformation of a language over time.   

     The world in which we live is an incredibly complicated one. If a student declares a major in biology, the first question is, “which aspect of biology?” For there is cellular biology, biochemistry, botany, zoology, microbiology, anatomy, ecosystems, and a series of other subjects that all fit under the header of biology.

      If you were to study history, you might well ask “what era and what geographical region?” History includes ancient, European, American, Asian, or even African histories. European history is further divided into British, French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Russian, and these are each divided into centuries, and those centuries into topics.

     The same can be said for chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, religion, physics, medicine, business, for within any broad subject there is layer upon layer of knowledge that has been carefully researched, documented, and then written into the textbooks. A careful student will limit his or her scope.

     Henry David Thoreau said, “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.” He followed his own advice by living in a cabin near Walden Pond, but instead, I say to you, future college student, “Outline. Outline. Outline.” It is a proven method for organizing a mountain of mind-twisting information, much like a wall of pigeonholes, so that you can retain that information, perhaps withdraw it later, and then use it, for your own betterment.

     To choose a college major wisely means selecting where you want to live, factoring in your own innate curiosity, expanding your talent to visualize, limiting your scope, and finally adding in a measure of patience. Wait and allow your major to reveal itself to you. “Patience and patience,” said Emerson, “we shall win at last.”