Now is a time when many students are choosing subjects to study. Those applying for undergraduate degrees in the UK will be browsing university prospectuses, booking open days and filling out UCAS forms. Those already at university may be finalising module choices for the coming academic year. And some doctoral students will be starting their research programmes with a rather blank slate: what exactly am I going to work on here? At the start of my own PhD programme, I had to select a plant species to focus on, but many doctoral initiates have to make much bigger choices about what to study. How do we make decisions like these? I want to reflect on the ways we approach what may be life-changing decisions, and how we advise others… and I have a project to propose.
The traditional approach is to study what interests you. “Follow your heart!” – or at least, study what you know you’re good at. This appeal to the student’s inner direction may lead to the greatest diligence in pursuing the chosen subject through the years ahead, and success in mastering it. Of course, it can also absolve the person giving such advice of blame for any less successful outcome! Nevertheless, the concept of intellectual interest is close to the heart of the ideal of academia, with its traditional focus on abstraction from everyday life, and theoretical insight. Surely it would be a bad idea to study an academic subject without being interested in it.
Having said that, I suspect it’s becoming rare for prospective university students to choose a subject without considering financial prospects. In the UK and many other places, the realities of tuition fees and student loans bring economics squarely into students’ deliberations about programmes of study, and pathways through programmes on which they are enrolled. This can strongly temper a student’s pursuit of private interest, directing him or her towards disciplines with more potential (or promise) for economic success. The invisible hand of the free market directs talent to where it is most needed – or so classical economics would have it.
There’s more to subject choice than this, though. If, like me, you have a PhD, you may well already have resisted some of the lure of remuneration. We may be following our interests and aptitudes – but there may be yet other factors at play. Were we guided by an ambition to stand out and be recognised? Did we pursue expertise that we saw contributing to the common good? Did we follow some spiritual guidance, perhaps even without knowing why?
The motive that I’d like to focus on is similar to promoting the common good. In more biblical terms, we can speak of seeking the Kingdom of God. This won’t make for easy decision-making, but of course following Jesus isn’t about an easy life. We’ll first need to ditch any intimations of a spiritual hierarchy of disciplines: neither theology nor youth work, nor teaching nor nursing, nor any other special subject will be God’s calling for us simply because we seek to follow Jesus. We probably won’t even countenance following the money towards the most lucrative subject choices – although I think it’s important to say that God might well be pleased with you earning a good salary, investing it wisely, and indeed making friends “with unrighteous mammon” (Luke 16:9). Market failures and sinfulness, however, prevent salaries from reflecting what really needs doing for the common good (a topic for another time). Where does that leave us? Well, I think it leads back to an enlightened notion of following our interests and aptitudes.
British students have to make remarkably influential decisions quite early in their school careers: yes or no to the natural sciences around age 14, then a restriction to three or four A-level subjects around age 16, and then often a single university subject at age 18. Who can really know what they might be able to achieve in life at these early stages? Yet it’s by walking in step with the Spirit that a young Christian might begin to sense a calling to serve through a particular subject area, and I believe (reflecting on my own experience) that fruitful convictions about potential for reform and enrichment in society and culture can take root at such early stages.
There’s a project I’d like to develop to this end (get in touch if you’d like to help!). I envisage a guidebook to university subject choices written for secondary school students, from a Christian perspective that affirms the good potential of each discipline and vocation. While subjects like economics, law and philosophy are absent from many school curricula, such a publication could help students see the possibilities for them to bring the good news of God’s kingdom into these and other areas, and the spheres of society that they shape and colour. This probably wouldn’t make those university subject decisions easier, but mightn’t it contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom?