Inside Higher Ed reports on an interesting recent survey of Sociology majors in 2005, which said that “70 percent were satisfied with their major when they were seniors. By 2009, asked whether they were satisfied with their major after having been in the world of work or graduate school for a few years, only 40 percent were satisfied.” Of course, this survey may just have been timed spectacularly poorly, asking recent grads in the midst of the worst recession since World War II how they feel about their college majors, and the article notes this unfortunate coincidence.
The survey raises an interesting question for those of us who are skeptical of the value of customer satisfaction surveys end-of-semester student evaluations: how do students think about their educations over time? I myself tend to think that students gain more appreciation for their courses over time and after they see how incredibly random and corrupt adulthood generally is. But the survey results here suggest another possibility.
Now that I think of it, I was very satisfied with my education at the point I had completed it. I wrote an award-winning Senior thesis, and I had been admitted (with a T.A.-ship) to my top choice of graduate programs. So, mission accomplished, right? Well, sorta.
If I have any regrets about my undergraduate education, I regret that I was not instructed in historiography until my first year of graduate school. I loved it–and love it still, and emphasize it in most of my undergraduate courses even if I don’t teach it explicitly. I had to take a course only for history majors as a sophomore, but I don’t think it was particularly effective. (I also take some blame for this because as always, I was in a hurry, and insisted on taking it as a sophomore instead of waiting until my junior year, which is when most majors took the course.) The course was led by one instructor, but as I recall he invited each member of the History Department to assign a week’s reading and lead the class in a discussion of it. That was a great idea–except that my one overriding impression was that this was a department of historians who didn’t know how to talk to each other and really didn’t have a great deal to say to each other. It was unfortunate–we knew that many of them had written important books, some were still writing, them, and some had also had interesting careers in the military during World War II and the foreign service afterwards. (At least one was rumored to have been in the OSS!) But it was a pretty moribund scene in the late 1980s, or so it seemed to me as a crass 19- to 21-year old.
I guess I had learned how to appear smart enough and glib enough to get by without that much real learning. I wasn’t all that. My a$$ needed a good, solid kicking, and I just didn’t get it.
The one strength of the program was that its small class sizes meant that we wrote research papers in every class. I still remember with great fondness researching and writing each and every major paper I wrote as an undergraduate: the gruesome facts behind little St. William of Norwich; the Jewish families of Colonial Charleston; an intellectual biography of Jonathan Edwards; a long essay on Lucien Febvre’s Le Probleme de l’Incroyance au XVI siecle, la Religion de Rabelais (The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais); my thesis on indentured servants in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. I loved the library, and its vastness of silence and knowledge just waiting for me to reach up and pull off the shelves. (Back before online databases almost no students used journal articles! At least I didn’t, and I was considered a pretty dedicated researcher.)
Maybe my education wasn’t so bad, after all. I learned what I needed to know at the time, and enough to get me to the next step. I’ve had the luxury of time since then to follow my research interests wherever they wandered. What about you? Do you look back with appreciation on your choice of major, or do you regard it as a big mistake?
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