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Major Idiocy: Ninth Grade is Too Early to Decide Your Life

When I was in ninth grade, pumping gas at my dad's service station outside of Pittsburgh, the only major I was thinking about was how to spend the major part of my paycheck. So, when I heard that secondary school systems in Mississippi, Florida and New Jersey are asking high school freshmen to declare majors, I reacted with a single word.

Dumb.

Identifying a dumb idea is not only imperative but also a solemn duty when life in a new century points out that almost every person in the workforce today will change their career several times over the course of a lifetime, a lifetime, coincidentally, that lasts much longer these days.

Identifying a career path at age 14 or 15, eliminating the curiosity of taking a cooking class, a fiber art class or a geology class, runs the risk of turning our nation's high school graduates into specialists who can run a DNA test but have trouble identifying the scientific pioneers James Watson and Francis Crick. When I was born, DNA had not been deciphered yet, and by the time I graduated from high school I still hadn't deciphered what I wanted to do.

My parents made it clear that college was important and I made sure I earned the grades necessary to get in. If we all think about the career we were thinking about in ninth grade, it's a good bet few of us got it right. I know a career in higher education was not on my radar screen -- nor on the minds of my parents or teachers.

In fact, 80 percent of the jobs in the 21st century may not be known today but we do know the best of them will require highly educated, globally aware, entrepreneurial, team-oriented and agile individuals.

Education should not be a regimented march through a rigid system of classes designed to spit out a doctor, lawyer or electrician upon graduation. Parents and educators should let their children have a broad curriculum so they can explore many different subjects and develop the breadth of knowledge that used to be known as a "well-rounded education."

Twenty years ago, there were no jobs for Web developers, bloggers, computer game designers or virtual engineers. In fact, 80 percent of the jobs in the 21st century may not be known today but we do know the best of them will require highly educated, globally aware, entrepreneurial, team-oriented and agile individuals.

Sometimes, picking a major isn't the best path even for a college student. Here at Juniata, a liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pa., we don't have majors. We call our system a Program of Emphasis, but nomenclature aside, the system allows students to design their own educational path. If a student finds out in the sophomore year psychology isn't their strong suit, our flexible system can adapt the student's educational plan to refocus on his or her true interests. Some of our most famous graduates are a testament to this. Heidi Cullen, a global warming expert on the Weather Channel, earned a degree in religion, while Chuck Knox, one of the top coaches in NFL history, studied history.

Students also can follow their muse to take a few courses to widen their horizons. Pre-med students often take courses in ceramics, history or information technology, while humanities students can explore the physics of music or the chemistry of art.

Today's global marketplace requires an agile workforce that is willing to change and be lifelong learners. The best best employees are those who can bring together past experience, current reading or education and ideas from other areas to solve a problem. That type of thinking doesn't come from people who decided to be a lawyer before they were old enough to know what the meaning of "tort." It comes from people who have wandered through educational doors into topics and disciplines that informed their world view while establishing a solid foundation for whatever career strikes their fancy -- be it lawyer or luau coordinator.

Thinking about careers early is OK, but not everyone can look into the future to see where they are "destined for greatness," as Oprah Winfrey might say. Oprah, by the way, was a beauty pageant contestant, a radio reporter and a television news anchor before becoming a global brand. It's just that it seems absurd to believe that anyone can pin down their future before they've pinned a corsage on their date's wrist or lapel for the school dance.

What parents and educators across America should focus on is how best to prepare their children for this rapidly changing world.

Tom Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.