Earlier this week someone asked me, “What did you major in?” I had just dropped one of the esoteric facts I’ve spent my entire life collecting and I expected it to, as usual, lie on the floor a minute or two before scuttling up my leg, over my midsection to my neck, and finally back into my ear, a metaphor that should make me a lot more uncomfortable, but which I’m actually enjoying so much I plan to use it every chance I get, which won’t ever happen again. Anyway it was kind of weird to have someone close to my age ask, “What did you major in that you know Ptah was the Egyptian god of sculpture?” Almost as weird as having an Egyptian deity come up in a work-related training session, although I work in a library so I have esoteric facts crawling into my eyes and out of my mouth all the time. The funny thing is I majored in English and didn’t learn anything about Egyptian deities in any of the assigned reading, but the weird thing is I haven’t been asked what I majored in since, well, since I graduated. For students in the United States it’s a pretty common question, the tertiary education equivalent of “What’s your sign?” although it’s not usually a pickup line. It’s shorthand for, “What kind of person are you, what are you interested in, what are your hopes and dreams?” or in some cases it’s “What are your parents’ hopes and dreams that they’re paying for you to fulfill while you’d rather be taking improv classes?” It was a question I heard a lot when I was in college. With other students it was a nice icebreaker to start conversations, or to stop them. “I’m majoring in English. Oh, you’re majoring in accounting?” would be followed by a long, uncomfortable silence. From adults it was sometimes an expression of interest and sometimes when I told them I was majoring in English it led to expressions of befuddlement—“What are you going to do with that?” to cheap jokes about my future career in burger-flipping. Sometimes I turned it around on them. “Oh, you majored in psychology? How’s that helping you in your job as assistant office manager at a small midstate office supply company?” This strategy didn’t always work out so well, of course. “Oh, you majored in communications engineering and business and now you’re manager of a radio station?” And then I’d nod thoughtfully and say, “Well done,” but that’s another story.
In other countries, of course, higher education is structured very differently. In the United States we have some trade schools and also universities and colleges. Universities take a more unified view of education while colleges take little scraps of data, slap glue on them, and stick them to your brain, and if you’ve studied you should know that data are plural, the singular is datum, first isolated in 1986 when scientists put a Trivial Pursuit card under a microscope, and that Brent Spiner and Jonathan Luke Ke Huy Quan are Data. The “major” is a specific field of study that can range from architecture to zoology, both of which are very popular with people who don’t know what they want to do so pick either the first or last thing listed in the school catalog. In Britain, on the other hand, they have two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where students spend four years reading before they venture out into the world to either become coal miners or write novels about coal miners, and in Canada young people who’ve finished the secondary phase of their education build a chrysalis out of cheese and Tim Horton’s coffee cups and spend four years pupating before they emerge fully-fledged ski shop owners. In Australia education is a lifelong process of just trying to stay alive in a place where everything is out to kill you, and don’t get me started on higher education in other parts of the world because I know absolutely nothing about it.
So anyway it kind of threw me to be asked by another adult, “What did you major in?” after all these years and then later in the conversation I mentioned They Might Be Giants, and she asked, “Is that a musical group?” And now it was my turn to ask, “Are you sure you went to college?”