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Changes in Majors, 1

Jim Reische provided this detailed information (pdf) about changes in majors over the last 30 years. Previous discussions here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for four days. Day 1.

From 1986 to 2017, the number of students with more than one major increased from 79 to 228. This is the most impressive single statistic concerning the academic engagement of Williams students. (Previous related discussions here and here.)

1) Back in the day, double majoring was unusual, if not a little weird. Why take an extra set of 300/400 level courses in a second major — courses almost guaranteed to be difficult and time-consuming — when you have the pleasant option of sampling 100-level courses in a variety of interesting topics?

2) Now, double majoring is common, perhaps even expected among the top 25% of the class academically. (I would bet that there is a high correlation between Academic Rating and double majoring.) Good stuff! The more students taking serious 300/400 level classes, the better. Perhaps the ideal of a Williams “liberal arts” education is the student who majors in two fields from different divisions, e.g., Chemistry/English or Statistics/Art or Economics/History.

3) The 228 may actual underestimate the number of students studying two different fields in depth because it does not include students who add a concentration to their first major. For example, a student who majors in Math and gets a concentration in Africana Studies is doing Williams right.

4) We should be careful about claiming that the high number of double majors implies that Williams students are more academically serious than students at other schools. Williams makes double majoring easier than it is elsewhere because a) most majors require only 9 classes and b) our non-major requirements are easier to fulfill.

5) But ignore 4 for now. This is good news! The more double majors at Williams the better, and this almost tripling over the last 30 years is a wonderful indication of intellectual engagement among the students.

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#1 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On May 29, 2018 @ 9:32 am

Back in the day (1990), double majoring was not especially onerous. I was a Chemistry/Political Science double major, and kind of fell into it when I realized that there were many PoliSci classes that I wanted to take, so that completing the major requirements as not difficult. (I was initially focused on the Chemistry major). I wonder how many students aim for a double major from the beginning now?

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 29, 2018 @ 10:51 am

> I wonder how many students aim for a double major from the beginning now?

Lots. In general, students are much more intentional — of that is the best word — then they were back in the day, much more focused on the future, much more interested in careers and internships, earlier in their time at Williams.

Whether that change is good or bad is hard to say.

#3 Comment By Student ’21 On May 29, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

I don’t see the logical link. It is possible to talk a smattering of 200/300/400 level courses in different departments without double majoring. If anything, double majoring is overrated. I recommend you read the recent record piece, “WHY MAJORS SHOULD BE ABOLISHED: EMBRACING THE FULLNESS OF OUR LIBERAL ARTS MISSION.”

#4 Comment By hmm On May 29, 2018 @ 9:39 pm

Double majoring is not hard at Williams. Most majors require 10 or fewer courses, and thesis is optional as an honors project.

There are peer schools like Pomona and Haverford where the majors require 14-16 courses and with very few exceptions, everyone is required to do thesis. Correspondingly, these schools have double major percents considerably below Williams.

#5 Comment By hmm On May 29, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

Oh, I didn’t see you addressed that in 4. Apologies. But in general, Amherst, Williams, and other top LACs have rather sparse requirements for degrees compared to the Ivies and universities. I guess students from them are prepared for graduate studies, so it isn’t necessarily an issue. But it is interesting.