Editorial: All majors should be busy as end of semester approaches

Editorial Board

Dead Week is well underway and finals are fast approaching. Blink, and you’ll miss them. Many students are probably trying to deal with going to their last week of classes, writing term papers, creating the final versions of projects and studying for final exams. Through all the stress, discussions often crop up of which department’s students have it the hardest. They might even explain their woes to other students, their professors, their parents or their employers with, “Oh, I’m an X (or Y, or Z) major.”

Though that small game of one-upmanship might seem trivial or short-lived, behind it lies the premise that a major’s academic worthiness can be judged on the basis of how “hard” it is to stay sane and complete all the requirements to graduate. That frame of mind is wrong. At a college or university, knowledge is knowledge and academics are academics.

Granted, the prudence of being in one major or another can be judged on the likelihood that the knowledge will enable a student to obtain a job after graduation — one that pays the bills and retires the debt from student loans.

Recognition of the equal academic merit of different areas of study dates, at Iowa State, to its beginnings. In 1869, the ISU College of Agriculture’s first president, Adonijah Welch, spoke in his inaugural address on this subject. Whereas now it is more often students in engineering, hard sciences or design that suggest their majors are inherently better since they feel more like the world is closing in on them, Welch argued from the opposite position.

At the time the land-grant colleges, which were created to instill in students an education that was balanced between the traditional liberal arts and practical education that would help them do work that would spur economic growth or improve the flow of economic processes such as agricultural production, were new.

Welch combated the prejudice that the liberal arts were better or more intellectual than agriculture and mechanics. He spent a great deal of his time arguing that agriculture and the mechanic arts deserved, on the basis of their intellectual rigor, to occupy the energies of an institution of higher learning. The “branch of knowledge” studied, he said, was irrelevant as long as it was effective “as a means of intellectual discipline” and could be adapted “to further the interests and enjoyments of life.”

The key to intellectual development, Welch argued, was not study of a specific subject but determination and persistence. “It is not the knowledge acquired, but the protracted strain of the intellect in the act of acquiring it, that brings intellectual strength and acuteness. Disciplined power is the consequence that flows, not from the matter studied, but from the manner of studying it.”

Some students might indeed need to plan for less studying on their agendas every night or be in less of a freak-out mode as the end of the semester approaches. That condition, however, does not result from the choice of major. It is instead dependent on the rigor used by instructors and the challenges that students create for themselves. If college is an adventure, it is an adventure in which every step is chosen by the individual student.