In this happy season of college graduations, students and parents will probably not be reflecting on the poor choices those students made in selecting their courses and majors. In colleges today, choice is in and requirements are out. Only the military academies, certain Great-Books colleges and MIT (and its like) want to tell students what they must study. Most colleges offer a cornucopia of choices, and most of the choices are bad.
The bad choices are more attractive because they are easy. Picking not quite at random, let's take sociology. That great American democrat Archie Bunker used to call his son-in-law "Meathead" for his fatuous opinions, and Meathead was a graduate student in sociology. A graduate student in sociology is one who didn't get his fill of jargonized wishful thinking as an undergraduate. Such a person will never fail to disappoint you. But sociology has close competitors in other social sciences (including mine, political science) and in the humanities.
Part of the problem is the political correctness responsible for "Gender Studies," a politicized major that has its little echoes in many other departments, and that never fails to mislead.
More fundamental, however, is the division within the university today, in America and everywhere, between science and the humanities. Science deals with facts but the humanities also have to deal with values. This is where the problem of bad choices arises. We think that one can have knowledge of fact but not of values—the famous "fact/value" distinction.
Science has knowledge of fact, and this makes it rigorous and hard. The humanities have their facts bent or biased by values, and this makes them lax and soft. This fact—or is it a value?—gives confidence and reputation to scientists within the university. Everyone respects them, and though science is modest because there is always more to learn, scientists sometimes strut and often make claims for extra resources. Some of the rest of us glumly concede their superiority and try to sell our dubious wares in the street, like gypsies. We are the humanists.
Others try to imitate the sciences and call themselves "social scientists." The best imitators of scientists are the economists. Among social scientists they rank highest in rigor, which means in mathematics. They also rank highest in boastful pretension, and you can lose more money listening to them than by trying to read books in sociology. Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle. (Game theorists, I'm talking about you.)
Now the belief that there can be no knowledge of values means that all values are equally unsupported, which means that in the university all departments are equal. All courses are also equal; no requirements can be justified as fundamental or more important. Choice is king, except that there can be no king.
It's no wonder, then, that students make poor choices, avoiding difficult courses, stumbling into easy ones, embracing counterfeit majors. One might hope that with common sense they could learn from experience, but according to the fact-value distinction, experience cannot be shown to give one better judgment. There is no "better" judgment. That's what colleges teach their students these days.
Mr. Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, is also a senior fellow of Stanford's Hoover Institution.