Rethinking the Double Major

“What do you want to major in?” is a ubiquitous question among first-years during their first few months at Amherst. It’s one of those classic orientation conversation starters, like “Where are you from?” and “What dorm are you in?” The responses to the major question are always varied, but it’s striking how often they come in twos — whether it’s history and economics, Spanish and math or LJST and religion.

There’s undoubtedly something appealing about the double major. After all, about 40 percent of Amherst students take on more than one major, sacrificing the freedom of the open curriculum in order to fulfill more requirements. And there are great reasons for doubling up. Maybe the two disciplines overlap nicely with your academic passions. Maybe you’ve already fulfilled the requirements for a language major and all you need to do to complete the major is fill out a form. Maybe you just love two disparate subjects, like music and math, and can’t bear to give either of them up.

But while there are plenty of good reasons to double major, there are also plenty of bad reasons. When everyone else is double majoring, it’s easy to get caught up in the fray. Amherst is full of overachievers. Surrounded by goal-driven people, we strive to stand out and always do more. Especially given the anxiety-riddled job search that awaits us as we prepare to receive our degrees, we feel the need to distinguish ourselves above others with honors, credentials and lines on our resume.
Sometimes Amherst students feel pressure to pair a passion with a major that feels more “practical” — whether to impress potential employers, appease anxious parents or just boost our own self-esteem. And while planning for the future is certainly not a bad thing, it’s tempting to get swept up in the double majoring frenzy without really thinking long and hard about whether that double major is worth it.

Double majoring can be difficult. It means taking around 20 required classes and often taking two sets of comps. For some, double majoring means sacrificing other valuable Amherst experiences, like studying abroad. At its best, a double major is a way to explore two equally strong interests. But at its worst, a double major can pigeonhole students by inundating them with requirements that stifle intellectual curiosity and prevent them from discovering new passions. The experience of exploring new subjects and taking new classes that make you uncomfortable is vital to the liberal arts education — but too often double majors don’t get to have this experience.

If Amherst students decide to double major because we feel obligated to do so or because we think a second major will help us secure a safe career path, we are restricting ourselves from the true pursuit of the liberal arts. Investment bankers can be biology majors, and doctors can be music majors. Your major or majors here do not determine the entirety of your future career or life path. Instead, your major should allow you to study your passion, while the rest of your classes should allow you to explore and to be made uncomfortable by new challenges to your way of thinking. Amherst has an open curriculum for a reason. We students are entrusted with the ability to guide our own education, to expand our own minds and abilities and to reach beyond the boundaries of preconceived notions that we hold about ourselves and the world. We all are required to make good and responsible use of this privilege.