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Mind Over Major

The case for using college to become more interesting.

July 19, 2022

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Collage illustration of Greek and Roman statues and elements that represent education and liberal learning.

Illustration: DaVidRo

“What if I were to tell you that your major didn’t matter?” These were not the words that the students in my first-year seminar were expecting. Some had already chosen their major before arriving at Stanford; for others, it was an agonizing, existential decision. But our course, part of Stanford’s new first-year requirement in Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE, for short) invited them to reconsider the very purpose of their undergraduate education. As they entered Stanford, their future major appeared as the most important part of college, and their key to future success. Our course, Why College? Your Education and the Good Life, questioned these assumptions. What is the appropriate measure of success? Is college supposed to train you for a job, or does it serve other purposes as well? And what are truly the most important skills in life?

The new COLLEGE requirement, which grew out of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, responds to concerns that our students no longer appreciate or even understand the goals of a liberal education. This is problematic for a number of reasons, notably because that is the name given to the kind of education they are receiving. Unlike students in England or China, Stanford students do not enroll in a major before they matriculate. And they do not single-mindedly pursue a major but take a number of general education courses, as well as writing, language, and breadth requirements. If students do not appreciate why their college education is structured in this way, they are unlikely to maximize its benefits.

Liberal education is also more than a type of curriculum design: It is a philosophy of education. (Liberal in this context has nothing to do with being politically liberal.) And it is a philosophy that does not place work or careers at its center—something that today sounds almost quaint. The original concern of liberal education was what we should do with our leisure.

Leisure is a term that calls to mind the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But it has a much more dignified history. The ancient Greek word for leisure was scholé, which noncoincidentally was also their word for school. School was where we learned what to do with our leisure. The ancient Greeks argued that if we did not explore and question how best to spend our free time, we risked wasting it. How can we find true happiness? What makes life worth living? Upon inspection, most of the commonplace answers—power, money, sex—turn out to be rather unsatisfying. Acquiring power is as much a matter of luck as of skill, and so is largely out of our control. Of wealth, the Athenian sage and lawgiver Solon famously wrote, “no bound has been fixed or revealed to men.” As for sex, the philosopher Epicurus argued that our dependence on sensual gratification led to longing more than satisfaction.

Few students see the overarching purpose of college as ‘becoming a more interesting person.’ But failing to do so can seriously limit their chances of finding happiness in life.

Today, we are not used to placing questions about happiness at the heart of our educational system. Part of the reason is that we have turned work into a cult. We do not see work as a means toward other goods, but as an end in itself. The upper echelons of the corporate world understand this well, and hardly afford their members any leisure time at all. Leisure has been downgraded to those rare moments when we are not working. By contrast, for the ancients, it was work that got in the way of leisure. In Latin, work (negotium) is literally the antithesis of leisure (otium).

We have grown accustomed to thinking of leisure as something not to be overthought. Watch a game, take a vacation, go to the mall—just chill out! Of course, we have been heavily conditioned to consider certain activities as “natural” forms of leisure. Some of this conditioning is cultural, but much of it is economic. Think about the amount of money we spend on leisure and the commercial interests that shape our habits. How often do we stop to ponder the alternatives?

Leisure is also much more than weekends and days off. It’s the time we spend in the evenings with our friends, our partner, our family. How do we fill that time in a fulfilling way? A good way to answer that question is to ask ourselves whom we like to be around. Someone with an unusual past, or who reads widely, or who’s traveled to exotic locations—these are the people who make for more appealing companions. Anyone who’s ever seen a rom-com knows that it’s not the straightlaced jock with the promising career who wins the girl’s heart, but the goofy, eccentric guy who’s just more interesting and fun.

Few students see the overarching purpose of college as “becoming a more interesting person.” But failing to do so can seriously limit their chances of finding happiness in life. They may still be successful in an economic sense, but research shows that there is an “income satiation level” above which increases in wealth do not lead to increases in happiness. A liberal education contributes directly to our future well-being by preparing us for more meaningful and satisfying interactions with others. To be sure, there are fulfilling activities that we can enjoy on our own. But few of us will find the good life wholly in solitude. Epicurus’s school was called the Garden, and his students lived there together, pursuing their interests collectively, as friends. This ideal lives on in the college campus, with its residential life, leafy setting and intellectual debates.

Many of the more fascinating aspects of human life require an introduction. Classical novels by the likes of Flaubert and Tolstoy are a great source of insight about human behavior and psychology, but they can seem formidable if you are unaccustomed to the genre. Classical music is an endless source of consolation and inspiration, but the ear needs some guidance to appreciate its pleasures. Even popular sources of entertainment—movies, TV shows—become richer and more complex upon examination. Human biology, sociology, astrophysics, linguistics—just about any topic can be a spark for thoughtful conversation and discovery.

To have a well-furnished mind is to never be bored.

Becoming an interesting person means having interesting thoughts to share, but also to ponder. Sometimes we are our only company. Commuting to work, folding the laundry, waiting to pick up a child after school: Where do you go in your mind? A 19th-century report by Yale faculty imagined the student’s mind as a room, with the goal of education being to “furnish” it. To have a well-furnished mind is to never be bored. The novelists or essayists you once read are always on hand to offer their advice; you have a repository of symphonies and sonatas to choose from, depending on your mood; and your eye may detect a resemblance between the parent waiting beside you and the subject of a painting you once glimpsed. The best libraries, concert halls, and museums are those we carry in our minds.

Many students are receptive to these ideas: Who doesn’t want to be happy? But often they feel that this kind of cultural enrichment is a luxury they can’t afford. Leave such leisurely pursuits to the leisure class: The rest of us must focus on earning a living and providing for our families. Of all our professional duties, though, the most important is one that we fulfill in our time off: citizenship. To maintain a successful democracy, we must vote responsibly. We have a duty to inform ourselves about the issues and the candidates on the ballot. It takes skill to unravel the complexities of many issues and the rhetoric of most politicians. This is the skill that a liberal education is meant to provide, for the free citizens of a democracy or a republic. After all, liberal derives from the Latin word liberalis, meaning free. Once we cease investing in liberal education, or our students give up on its philosophy, we risk losing our ability to govern ourselves collectively. We risk no longer being free.

When students confront the philosophy of liberal education, they can feel as though they’re facing a dilemma. Through one door, wealth but possible emptiness; through the other door, purpose but possible penury. The truth is that having a broad diversity of interests and insights on many topics will help win people over at work as well as in leisure. There are many professional advantages to speaking a foreign language, understanding group psychology, or knowing history. But more than the specific knowledge that we acquire through a liberal education, it is the manner in which we study that proves most useful in the end. Employers overwhelmingly report that they care little about majors and much more about communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. These are precisely the skills that students hone during discussion seminars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The same skills make us desirable both as friends and as co-workers.

To the extent that students have a choice to make, then, it is whether to work against the system of education in which they find themselves or to work with it. Working against it means focusing obsessively on a single topic, be it computer science or creative writing. Working with it means embracing our natural curiosity and recognizing that every topic taught at the university makes our lives richer by revealing the fascinating complexity of the world. “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy,” pronounced Socrates. It is also the source of friendship, happiness, and a good life.


Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French. He also directs the unit that administers the new first-year requirement, COLLEGE, for all undergraduates. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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