What would you major in if you had to pick a major today?
Someone asked me that the other day and I was as stumped as I'd have been if she'd asked, "Can you explain Beck's monadicity theorem?" or "Why exactly do we care about Pippa Middleton?"
The subject had come up in our dinner conversation because of the recent kerfuffle over the value of majoring in things like English, history and sociology. The kerfuffle was ignited -- kerfuffle is an English-major kind of word -- by a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lamenting the decline of the humanities and social sciences in American education.
Are they truly in decline?
Does their decline mean the death of clear thinking, good writing and cultural cohesion?
Does majoring in those fields put you in the express lane to the unemployment office?
Since the report came out, such questions have stirred up a storm in certain quarters and data have been slung from both sides of the argument.
But my inquisitor hadn't asked her question -- what would you major in if you had to pick a major today? -- to solve the larger controversy. Her question was more like a parlor game in which you get to imagine an alternative version of yourself, the self you would create if you knew then what you know now.
So play the game with me. Ask yourself: What would you major in if you had to pick a major today?
A lot of us arrive at that fork in the road called "a major" before we have a clue where we want to go in life. When I was in college, I was mystified by the people who seemed to have been born with an internal career compass. They marched into freshman year knowing that they wanted to be, say, a doctor, and that's what they became.
Except the ones who flunked Chem 1A and wound up being lawyers.
The rest were people like me. We enjoyed certain subjects. We had some raw abilities. But we had no idea how to pick a major because we had no concrete idea of the work we wanted to do.
A lot of those people became lawyers, too.
I wound up cobbling together a major loosely dubbed "liberal arts" that was a mash of the courses I'd taken in French, English and New Testament Greek.
"And you found a job?" people say when they hear this. I share their amazement.
But I don't know that I'd be any more practical now than I was then, despite the adult knowledge that by the age of 22 or so, a person has to earn a living.
After some hemming and hawing, I picked my parlor-game answer: History.
Not as practical as a degree in medical billing, but more practical than New Testament Greek. History is the underpinning of everything.
Anthropology was my second choice, until I recalled the assistant at the funeral home I visited after my mother died. The young woman was friendly, smart and witty, and she made talking about my mother's ashes seem almost pleasant.
"How did you get into this line of work?" I asked.
Her answer: "I majored in anthropology."
When the funeral home was the only place she could find a job, she said, she chose to view the work as research on the rituals of death and not just an exercise in peddling cremation urns.
Remembering her story, I scratched anthropology from my potential majors.
Her story makes a good point, though. Anthropology was a line of inquiry for her, not just job prep. She had found a way to apply her education and curiosity to the work available.
Recently, I had lunch with a woman who will soon enter her senior year at the liberal arts college I attended. Her major involves environmental studies. I asked how she felt about finding a job when she's done with school.
She laughed. She said she'd just have to trust that it will all work out.
Trusting that it will all work out has always been a part of picking a major. In that way, it's no different from every other choice in life.
At least when you're picking a major in the parlor game, it doesn't cost $55,000 a year.
Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.