Among what seems to be the last crop of Record articles for the year is this Op-Ed on minors at the college. Sadly, perhaps because it was published right before finals, the piece hasn’t elicited any comments. Which is a shame! The two student authors who penned this article obviously put some time into writing it and we ought to take some time to listen, although not uncritically, to what they have to say. An excerpt:

While the value of having minors for the job search process has the easy potential to be exaggerated, minors offer some appreciable value when graduates seek work. This value comes in the form of official certification. Students have the ability, even without minors, to take around five courses in a subject. But, for employers, it is difficult to discern such a specialty without formal certification. While employers with thorough hiring procedures will likely notice such areas of commitment by combing through an applicant’s transcript, a minor can ensure that an applicant’s disciplines of specialty don’t go overlooked. Minors do not change one’s ability to specialize in a subject. Rather, by providing official certification, they make it easier for these academic specialties to be recognized.

Quite a bit here, but, let’s be brave and soldier on. Comments:

1) I start to take issue at the second line: minors offer “appreciable value” when graduates seek work? I’m doubtful. Major degrees barely signal expertise anymore; why would a minor? My guess is that a minor — even one relevant to a given position — helps you get a job about as much as being an amateur flautist helps you get into Williams. Which is to say, not very.

2) Even if we’re willing to grant that minor degrees have “appreciable,” albeit small, value to employers, is that a good reason to offer them? There’s quite a few things the college could do to pump up the value of the Williams degree: start mentioning our US News ranking in advertisements, recruit harder, maybe inflate grades a bit more to help those not graduating cum laude get into fancy professional schools.

And, strangely, I’m alright with most of those things! We ought to do the best we can to communicate the value of a Williams education to everyone — prospective students, employers, the hoi polloi, everyone — but we shouldn’t cheapen ourselves to do it.

Now grade inflation is well ahead of the “cheapening ourselves” line. Is offering minors? I’d have to say  so. We’re talking about a total of five courses for a minor — one introductory, one “gateway” and three or so conducted at a level that we might term “intermediate.” Is that really enough expertise to award a degree for? If so, where do we draw the line? Should we also start giving students commendatory stickers for every course they manage to pass?

In any serious field, and I like to think that all areas of studies at Williams are serious, five courses is enough to get your feet wet. Which is alright! You can only do so much in four-years; perhaps recognizing how much is left to learn would do the student body more good than vigorously credentialing what little they’ve actually learned.

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