The Tyranny of the Lists

Apparently lists are irresistible to readers. Just this morning I myself chose to read online about the ten best value used cars and the ten best brands of vanilla ice cream. In realms where I have limited knowledge and interest I am pulled in by these titles; however, the content of the lists I see pertaining to higher education give me significant pause as to the veracity and validity of such list-making.

A recent case in point: The Ten Easiest College Degrees. According to Angela Colley of, here they are: Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, English Literature, Sports Management, Creative Writing, Communications Studies, Liberal Studies, Theater Arts, Art, and Education. According to the post the list was formulated (and I quote) “by reviewing studies, comparing entrance requirements and course catalogs at dozens of colleges, and asking college students and recent graduates themselves.” So a high bar was set to be sure for assembling this list, and yet my experience as someone with many years of college teaching experience and past administrative positions in academic advising, first year programs and the like lead me to question her conclusions.

First of all, I am quite sure that the caliber of the institution significantly determines the rigor of its programs, whatever they may be. In my experience, as an interdisciplinary degree program, women’s studies is not for the faint of heart. It can be quite theoretical, and requires students to traverse the terrain between the humanities, social sciences and sometimes sciences in order to critique social institutions and received knowledge. I suppose it may sound easy from catalog descriptions at some institutions, but women’s studies professors are some of the most exacting and demanding teachers that I know.

English literature and creative writing?  Don’t majors in these subjects need to have an appetite for extensive close reading, sometimes of obscure texts (like Middle English for example–yikes!), and endless writing, editing, and re-writing? Many of the students I have taught, advised, and now coached as an educational consultant want to avoid this sort of thing like the plague. I imagine it all comes down to interest and aptitude: if you are engaged by something and feel you have skills that relate you will gravitate toward that subject and enjoy it. Math comes more easily to some students, and English to others. As someone with no artistic sensibilities or skills whatsoever, I am sure I would have made a lousy art major, and would have been miserable in such a degree program, and found it tough going.

And how many schools have a straight-up education major anyway? Most of the schools I’m familiar with feature education licensure programs to impart pedagogical skills, and require that students major in selected disciplinary degree programs, such as science, English, mathematics, social science, etc. This is also what many states require of prospective teachers.

My skepticism of lists extends to the college lists that many students and families seek out and follow, where I believe similar faulty assumptions and easy conclusions prevail. Whether it’s the The 377 Best Colleges, or the 40 Colleges That Change Lives, my question is always, according to whom, and why were some schools chosen and others left out? Surely there are more than 40 colleges that change the lives of students in powerful, positive ways—in fact, I’m sure of it. In my view lists are too easy, too pat, and too limited. And yet I understand their allure. Today I’m purchasing some Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream (ranked # 1 on the list I read) to go with the peach and raspberry pie I’m serving my guests for dessert tonight.  My clients, however, unlike my dinner guests, shall be liberated from the tyranny of the lists, as much as I can help make that happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *