And so it went on a recent phone call with my son Jules, who is a freshman at Ohio State.
In kindergarten, Jules broke up with his best friend because the boy loved smashing ant hills. As soon as he could read, Jules devoured countless books about ants and their colonies. After he had read every book written by E.O. Wilson, the eminent myrmecologist, or ant expert, Jules sent Wilson a letter along with pen-and-ink sketches.
Max’s mom introduced Jules to birding when he was 9, which he took to like geese to golf courses. He joined the Ohio Young Birders Club and one year they awarded him a scholarship to study shore birds in Delaware with the American Birding Association.
In high school, Jules focused on bees. For two years, he helped do research at the University of Akron on the rusty-patched bumblebee. Once ubiquitous in Ohio, this bee species has declined by 87% in the past 20 years. Jules was part of a UA biology crew that crisscrossed the northern half of Ohio (a crew from Ohio State worked the southern half) looking for the rusty-patched bumblebee. They never found a single one.
I have a son with a degree in English literature and another who’s about to get a dual degree in opera vocal performance and European history. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made much ado of the fact that, with Jules, I also have a scientist in the fold. He chose Ohio State because of its renowned biology programs and was placed in the college’s scholars program, which includes housing with other biology-related majors.
“So, Mama,” Jules said when he called, “so the thing is, and I need you to be OK with it, but I’ve really been thinking about it and, well, so, I think what I want to do is, well, switch majors.”
“OK,” I say, not alarmed. He first enrolled as an environmental science major before quickly switching to ecology, which is similar, but focuses more on the big picture.
“Yeah, so, well,” Jules said while giggling. “Um, yeah. I want to study philosophy.”
“Yeah, and when I tell my friends in the dorm, they all think that’s perfect for me.” Ah, the fail-safe feedback of floor mates whom you’ve known for two months.
“OK,” I said in a drawn-out way, inviting more explanation.
“Well, with ecology, so, you see, I really don’t want to do all that math and, yeah.”
“You might want to wait until you take a couple courses in logic before declaring a major in philosophy,” I told him. I loved my first logic course when I studied at OSU many moons ago. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments is valuable. Logic II, however, was more like an algebra class with letters equally this or that or not.
Before calling me, Jules had sought Hugo’s advice on how to break the news. “Praise Jesus and welcome to the family! I always thought you were adopted or a freak for wanting to go into the sciences and all that math,” Hugo told him in the course of an hour-and-a-half phone conversation.
The only high school math course I understood was geometry, which made visual sense. Also, I had Mrs. Conrad, an older woman who was both a teacher and a farmer and wore homemade polyester dresses. She read a poem at the beginning of each class and posted a different quote across the top of the board every week. Mrs. Conrad could have gotten me to enjoy kidney and liver pie.
Not wanting to color their opinions, I’ve never told my children how difficult math was for me. But the jig is up. We’ve all come clean and, thus far, I’ve spawned three men who, like me, love literature, art, music and history — math, not so much.
When applying to colleges, Jules was so set on studying biology that I neglected to give him my elevator speech on picking a major: Few people end up doing for a living whatever it was they studied as an undergrad. Therefore, study something that brings you joy. All I insist upon is that you do, in fact, get a bachelor’s degree.
Other parents approach college differently. Not surprisingly, my first-generation college students at the University of Akron overwhelmingly study computer science, engineering, medicine. Some parents refuse to allow their children to major in things like visual art, music, dance. And if they are paying for it, they have that right.
My kids are paying for their own college educations. I help them whenever I can, but they’ve all worked while in school and taken out loans. Time will tell if my advice on majors is wise, but so far I haven’t had any complaints.
“Thank you, Mama, whew! I feel so much better now,” said Jules when, near the end of our phone call, I gave him my speech. “And, hey, by the way, before I hang up, yeah, so, um, yeah. I got my ear pierced last week.”
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 1, 2019.
Contact Holly Christensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.