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Bad advice can ruin the journey  

July is an exciting yet challenging month for high school graduates who will apply to universities after the annual College Entrance Examination.    As a change of major is not very common in China, students may feel that they are facing a one-shot deal in choosing an area of study and even a future career.   

The choice can weigh heavy for young students, many of whom are not yet equipped with the skills and knowledge to make major decisions like this.   They may turn to parents, teachers and other authoritative figures for advice.    Unfortunately, some of these advisers offer their words of wisdom based not on a student’s interests and potentials, but on what is “hot” out there. 

Recently, a Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) professor lamented on his micro blog that his friend’s daughter passed a more popular major in Renmin University to choose the history major in Peking University.   “A silly liberal arts girl came into being,” the professor defiantly wrote.   When challenged about his statement, the professor went on to say that liberal arts students will eventually develop an “anti-science” mentality and often go on to harm the society.  

Seriously?  

In this age when people are so desperate for attention they are willing to roll in manure to get their 15 minutes of fame, the professor’s arguments simply seem irrelevant and irresponsible.   However, it brought to mind a conversation I had with an engineer a year ago.   The engineer said his son had to study engineering for his major because it would train his son to think "scientifically". Everything else, he argued, is useless.   Therefore I should not dismiss the professor’s arguments as simply being a way to get a controversy going around him.   Instead, he and the engineer father can both be deadly serious in their positions, as serious as the frog at the bottom of the well who believes that the sky is as large as the rounded patch at the top of the well.  Both are imprisoned in their own tunnel vision called academic background, and they find it wrong for people not to adopt visions of theirs.

I studied English in China and then studied for a master's degree in science in the United States. I learned to appreciate the beauty and value of scientific thinking, and I went on to become an instructional designer working with content experts in many disciplines. Migrating from one major to another, I realized that each discipline of study carries its own rigor or standards to measure quality. There can be great intellectual rigor in an analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, while a scientist's theory can end up as fiction. Simply having a science degree does not bestow value or worth. There are good scientists and bad ones, just as there are good historians and bad ones.  A shoddy scientist may wreak greater havoc with the world than a Chinese or history major.  Think of all the bridges that have collapsed due to design effects and roads that cracked soon after they were built.  An educated man should understand that one major is not naturally superior to another.  

Generally speaking, every discipline can train a discerning and creative mind.    You cannot compare apples to oranges by saying that a music major cannot send a rocket into space, and therefore he or she is not useful to the society.   They may produce works of art that astronauts spend a good deal of time enjoying when up there.    Is that useful?  You might as well ask if human satisfaction is useful.

The complexity of the world and human needs makes it necessary for education to diversify into many areas.   For a young person about to embark on a journey of learning, I think the important question to ask is not which major is more useful.  Rather, one should inquire what his or her natural element is, and which institution provides the most congenial soil for him or her to grow.  In his book The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson gave examples from numerous fields how people succeed by finding their natural aptitude, and how they orchestrate attitude, effort and opportunity to make something out of such natural aptitude.  

The beginning of college does not end the search for one’s natural talent and passion.  It may be just a start.   Life is a journey of discovery.  Try to make it enjoyable and fruitful.    For all the worldly wisdom the HIT professor can dole out, he is not going to be there to suffer for you if you chose something that you will spend the rest of your life disliking.   And besides, no major is permanently “hot”.   When a major is perceived as “hot”, you can bet there are crowds there that will soon tilt the supply and demand balance.  Think of the computer majors when the Internet bubble evaporates.  Think of the legion of finance majors when Wall Street became engulfed in the recent crisis.   Stop wondering which are the best majors out there.  Wonder instead which major will make you the best you can be in the days to come.

July 10th, 2012, China Daily



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