Choosing Majors and Minors

Each year I get the opportunity to interview between forty and fifty Kemper Scholars Program finalists on campuses around the country as part of the process of selecting the twenty students who will comprise the next class of Kemper Scholars. Speaking for about an hour with this diverse group of high achieving young leaders, all of them near the end of their first year, gives me insights into what the current generation of college students is thinking. This year when I asked the finalists what they hoped to study in college, nearly half of them listed not only two majors but two or three minors. Knowing I would not see many of these young people again, I took the opportunity to try to talk them out of this approach to their college career. Given this sample, I feel sure there are other students out there with the same kind of plan. So I want to use this platform to try to talk you out of it also. First, no one (except perhaps the faculty in that department) really cares what, if anything, you have an academic minor in. Graduate schools look at your major, but many students go on to graduate work in fields they did not major in during their undergraduate careers. Potential employers probably will look at your major; but they do not care whether you have a minor and certainly not whether you have two or three. In trying to convince potential employers that they should hire you, your task is to show in your resume and especially your cover letter that you have the academic...

College Education as the Cornerstone of Future Learning

In the early 19th Century, Yale College was part of a national debate about college curricula, especially whether it made sense to continue to require students to study Latin and Greek. The faculty responded with a carefully argued position, which is referred to as the Yale Report of 1828. Their report continues to be instructive as evidenced by the excerpt below. (Because Yale did not become co-ed until 1969, the report’s language assumes only male students.) “As our course of instruction is not intended to complete an education in theological, medical, or legal science; neither does it include all the minute details of mercantile, mechanical, or agricultural concerns. These can never be effectually learned except in the very circumstances in which they are to be practiced. The young merchant must be trained in the counting room, the mechanic, in the workshop, the farmer, in the field. But we have, on our premises, no experimental farm or retail shop; no cotton or iron manufactory; no hatter’s, or silversmith’s, or coach-maker’s establishment. For what purpose, then, it will be asked, are young men who are destined to these occupations, ever sent to a college? They should not be sent, as we think, with an expectation of finishing their education at the college; but with a view of laying a thorough foundation in the principles of science, preparatory to the study of the practical arts. As everything cannot be learned in four years, either theory or practice must be, in a measure at least, postponed to a future opportunity. But if the scientific theory of the arts is ever to be acquired,...

Learning Jobs Skills Where They Happen

In the early 19th Century, Yale College was part of a national debate about college curricula, especially whether it made sense to continue to require students to study Latin and Greek. The faculty responded with a carefully argued position, which is referred to as the Yale Report of 1828. Their report continues to be instructive as evidenced by the excerpt below. You can find the full report online. (Because Yale did not become co-ed until 1969, the report’s language assumes only male students.) “As our course of instruction is not intended to complete an education in theological, medical, or legal science; neither does it include all the minute details of mercantile, mechanical, or agricultural concerns. These can never be effectually learned except in the very circumstances in which they are to be practiced. The young merchant must be trained in the counting room, the mechanic, in the workshop, the farmer, in the field. But we have, on our premises, no experimental farm or retail shop; no cotton or iron manufactory; no hatter’s, or silversmith’s, or coach-maker’s establishment. For what purpose, then, it will be asked, are young men who are destined to these occupations, ever sent to a college? They should not be sent, as we think, with an expectation of finishing their education at the college; but with a view of laying a thorough foundation in the principles of science, preparatory to the study of the practical arts. As everything cannot be learned in four years, either theory or practice must be, in a measure at least, postponed to a future opportunity. But if the scientific theory of...

Structuring your College Curriculum

The Kemper Scholars Program selects its students from liberal arts colleges for many reasons. A primary one is that the James S. Kemper Foundation’s founder, insurance magnate James Scott Kemper, believed graduates who made the best employees knew something about a lot of things and a lot about something. Because they know about a lot of things, they can see new and creative possibilities and are not stuck in a narrow rut of what they learned in their major. They are curious enough to follow up on such ideas and have the tools to do the research and thinking about them. As Mr. Kemper once put it, “I don’t want employees who have all the answers; I want employees who know which questions to ask.” The curricula of most liberal arts colleges are built upon a broad-based general education (a lot of things) and a major (something in depth). Sometimes even students in liberal arts colleges don’t get it. Some seek to get the general education out of the way so they can concentrate on “what I like and am good at.” Others choose multiple majors because they think it will make them more marketable. What that does is severely limit their breadth of choice in courses. People looking at resumes care what you have done and can do, not whether you have three majors. Warren Buffett is well-known as a wise investor and successful person, not least because he has earned billions of dollars by making good choices. In the late 1990s, Buffett’s investment company was criticized for not investing in technology firms. In Berkshire’s 1999 letter to...