Making a Case for the Multi-Major

by Austin Shepard Woodruff
contributor to the Underground

Pick a major, follow the path set out ahead, and slowly tick off the requirements class by class. For most students, one major is more than enough to fill up the weeks of the quarter, and especially for programs that demand a student’s presence, attention, energy, and time outside the classroom, this single-major style of learning becomes a central focus in a student’s life. This style is often layered with repetition of a certain skill set. Upon graduation, students may have tendencies to categorize knowledge in particular ways rooted in place for the rest of their learning processes. ‘One major, one minor’ becomes a degree whose specificity marks its limitations. But this is only one way to approach an education. I believe that learning in formal educational settings is altogether more effective, more productive, and more powerful when students pursue more than one field of study.

I study literature and philosophy here at DePaul University and can vouch for the success of applying skills learned in literature classes to demands in philosophy classes. In the Humanities, especially, the skills one develops in a certain field are applicable to other fields. As a literature major, I learn to critically analyze literary texts and the construction of cultural identities; as a philosophy major I learn to engage with philosophical texts to grasp the frameworks of cultural foundations. Language and truth are as intertwined as literature and philosophy. One is the organ that functions; the other is the expression, the representation, of that function. Philosophy and literature affect one another—indeed they perpetuate one another, and frequently their respective grammars overlap.

The literature major develops a skill set that prepares a student for critical analysis; applying this faculty to other areas of learning becomes immediate and instinctual. The literature program, and other programs in the English Department, offers space for students to navigate their thought processes and explain themselves clearly in relation to specific cultural contexts. These are necessary talents for further studies and for success beyond the undergraduate degree. To study “literature” without “philosophy” may thwart the realization of potentially harmonious paths to knowledge. This is true of not only the pairing of philosophy and literature, but of all multi-majors. The multi-major shapes meaning and understanding in ways that create opportunity for further learning. Intersecting majors create a dynamic learning experience that goes beyond the usual narrow vision for opportunity in education.

Real learning happens in surpassing boundaries and overcoming limits, be they at the edge of epistemological frameworks or embedded in the very structure of belief. Ask of your discipline: what holds you? What do you hold? Ask yourself: how should we learn? How should I learn? While it is valuable to appreciate institutional strategies for organization of knowledge, so too is the questioning and reinvention of those strategies for every student.  Does ‘one major, one minor’ leave room for growth? Does it instill a sense of wonder for the multiplicity of the world? Does it inspire a thirst for meaning that defies enclosure? Readers should meditate on their choice of study carefully, especially at the beginning of every quarter and every school year. We should make a point to consider how we are learning and what we can do differently to appreciate the many changing modes of discovery in our world. Pursuing more than one major may be the first step.

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