When I showed up on the morning of my college graduation, I told whomever was in charge of herding hundreds of hungover almost-grads into a semblance of organization that I had majored in Ancient History.
“I didn’t even know we had that major!” said the woman behind the plastic tablecloth-covered folding table.
“I certainly hope we do,” I offered.
I ended up walking with the Classics majors, worrying throughout the ceremony that I’d wasted several years and an obscene amount of my parents’ money, and ultimately graduating just fine. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen what it says on my diploma and no one ever investigated me for fraud when I listed both Ancient History (my major) and Journalism (my minor) on my resume without distinguishing between the two.
Now, I do this. And I’m quickly forgetting whatever I absorbed in three years (long story) spent studying hieroglyphics and Herodotus. Which is not to say that college doesn’t matter, or even that the classes you take in college don’t matter. But what you declare to be your major? That matters very little.
The occasion for remembering that I had a major at all (and that at one point it was Astrophysics) is the news that Emerson College will be offering a B.F.A in Comedic Arts starting next academic year.
The New York Times offers an overview of the design of such a department, under the guise of a critical headline: “Could a College Degree in Comedy Be Anything Other Than a Joke?” Despite granting that “there’s something absurd about the respectability laundering at work here,” the review is primarily flattering:
Formalizing the study of comedy into an academic degree may seem like, well, a joke. But Emerson has made strides to pre-empt criticism. The curriculum is heavy on theory and craft, with practical classes like Comedy Writing for Television, Great Screenwriters: Wilder, Allen, Kaufman and Comedy Writing for Late Night, balanced out by headier electives like Why Did the Chicken? — Fundamentals of Comedic Storytelling.
They’re probably right to imagine some future mockery, or at least incredulous headlines, but it’s not all that subversive if you consider that for most liberal arts students, a major is essentially meaningless. Assembling various potentially useful classes around one organizing concept is a fine idea. But the limitations of degree options and the internal limitations of any particular department have no bearing on what one should strive to get out of a liberal arts education.
Majors Are Bullshit is not a revolutionary idea. A few years ago, the Times published an adapted excerpt from Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students with a headline that asked rhetorically “Does The College Major Matter?” and immediately supplied the conclusion “Not Really.” Selingo offers a handful of vague aphorisms (“Be creative”) that don’t really constitute a viable replacement. But the gist of the wisdom (focus on gaining skills by working hard at whatever interests you) makes sense—and is generally supported by statistical analysis.
Data from 2010 shows that while most (62 percent) college grads were working in jobs that required a degree, only about a quarter (27 percent) were working in jobs that corresponded to their undergraduate major.
A college degree is becoming increasingly necessary to be taken seriously as a candidate for almost any job. I’ll let other people debate the merits of what is often just an expensive four-year camp for young adults acting as a gateway to a white-collar career. But neither the superficial value of a degree nor the qualitative benefits of dedicated study are contingent on any particular major. If your college will let you tell jokes for credit, do it and don’t forget to network.