What’s the point of an X department?

Over at Crooked Timber there’s a discussion on eliminating some majors to save money, particularly if they don’t have many graduates.

The issue made it to Leiter because several of the Philosophy departments in those institutions fall into the low-major category. But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department? In Our Underachieving Colleges (CT review still on its way: DD to blame if I never get round to it) Derek Bok claims that the standard assumptions within most departments in research universities is that the undergraduate curriculum is for attracting and then teaching majors, and, further, that our attention to the majors should be shaped by the aim of preparing them well for graduate school. This means that the curriculum is designed for a tiny minority of the students who take classes, and even many of them, probably, would be better off doing something other than going to graduate school (that’s me, not Bok, saying the last bit).

Philosophy departments should take heed of Samidh’s observation that philosophers are good entrepreneurs and point out that they may produce the next big alumni donor!

I wonder the degree to which Bok’s claim is true in mathematics, science, and engineering. I think it’s probably true that the average biology major or electrical engineer is being prepared for work at a company. Even senior electives are useful in this sense, especially if they are project-oriented. However, it’s probably the case that if you major in math and do not plan to go to graduate school, then your senior seminar in commutative algebra is pretty much useless for the work you’ll do later. But is the average math major at a public university being prepared for (some) graduate program? Is math in this sense closer to the humanities programs mentioned above?

In electrical engineering, it’s to go work in a company (or for the government) designing/building stuff, and those specialized classes are geared for that. On average, I think undergraduate programs in engineering in the US don’t emphasize going on to graduate study. An exception is the profit-turning one-year masters programs that have become popular in recent years. Designing a program to prepare people primarily for graduate school or designing a program to prepare people primarily for the workforce misses the point of college.

The story you hear is that a classical liberal arts education in the US is supposed to teach you to think critically and be an active and thoughtful member of society. So what does that mean for engineers? In a sense, design choices are a form of critical analysis within the context of engineering, but I think that kind of perspective can be construed more broadly. We’re so keen on formulating notions of optimality or engineering tradeoffs that we don’t also consider the societal aspects of the things that we design. It would be nice to get upper-division engineering classes that talk about where technology is headed, where society is headed, and how those interact on a more technical level. This kind of thinking is good preparation for work and for research. I think there are some classes like that out there, but they’re more or an anomaly than the norm, and they’re not really required. But it would be valuable for the students, regardless of where they go.