I double majored in criminal justice, but what did I actually learn?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology last year, with a second major in Criminal Justice (and minors in Sociology and Philosophy). My GPA qualified me for Summa Cum Laude and I am quite proud of my accomplishments in the program. I feel like I truly learned a lot from my time there and I enjoyed some of the classes I never thought I would enjoy - a lot more than I ever expected. For the most part. That second major in Criminal Justice? Not so much. That isn't because it was uninteresting, but because of how little I feel I actually learned from that specific part of my program.


Before I get into the details of what I "learned" in criminal justice, I would like to point out that a good majority of police departments, including almost all federal law enforcement, require a four-year college degree in order to apply. There are a variety of arguments as to why that is necessary, with the main one I have heard being that it ensures more qualified applications. I am not here to go into all the details of whether a degree makes for a better officer. I just wanted to point out the existence of this requirement before continuing, because it is important later on.

It is also important to understand that a college degree requires more than just taking classes specific to your major. When pursuing a sole Criminal Justice degree, you do not only take classes related to criminal justice. There are many other general education requirements as well as elective courses to fill the minimum number of credits.

My perspective of the program is a bit biased because I volunteered with my local police department through a Post 591 Student Explorer program for three years. Through that program, I learned a lot about being a police officer, including many standard operating procedures and rules on writing reports. Heck, I even cited a couple things I learned there as personal communications in a couple of my essays. Because why go look up a source for something that has been engrained into me for three years? That is to say, I have always been passionate about law enforcement and while I never did enter the law enforcement field, I thought about it many times. I will always hold a great deal of respect for those that risk their lives to protect us.

What did I learn?

All this is to say: I learned very little through these classes that I did not already know through my time volunteering with the police department. One of the classes I took was literally a class dedicated entirely to learning how to effectively write police reports. Let that thought sink in for a moment. Writing reports is job training, plain and simple. The police academy is already going to train every officer on how to write reports once they are hired. It is necessary to ensure they can do their job properly. So why is job training being integrated into a college curriculum under a disguise of learning about criminal justice?

While I may not have learned all that much in the context of new information presented as part of the course, I did learn a good amount through applying different perspectives to that information via discussion posts. More than that, I spent a lot of time applying what I know to the things being stated by classmates in those posts and developing my skills in pointing out inaccuracies.

What about the other students?

Through my time in criminal justice oriented classes, I communicated with many students who claimed they wanted to go into some sort of law enforcement. I would guess that at least half of the students had that goal in mind. The classes where there was some overlap between criminal justice and psychology were a bit murkier - many of those students were more interested in things like crisis counseling and juvenile care. The things I saw in some of the discussion posts from these fellow students, though, were nothing short of disturbing.

The example that comes to mind most clearly because it was near the end of my degree program is from someone who was discussing psychopathy without having any slight understanding on the subject. The discussion prompt tasked students with finding a recent news story on crime and discussing the sociological, biological, and psychological factors that may have contributed to the commission of the crime. One post in particular caught my eye. Here is a verbatim extract of what was said:

[...] Speaking of psychological theory, the suspects sell street drugs because they want to make money for themselves only. They don't care about others' health and how dangerous they are. These suspects sold them confidently and carelessly. These behaviors are part of a psychopath. For the biological theory, the suspects behave bad such as psychopaths, physical fights, and verbal abuse because of their parents' genes. For psychopaths, I'm sure that it's difficult to cure these individuals because they were born with it. After experiencing my career as a local and state police officer, I will work as a probation officer. [...]

If that did not physically hurt to read, let me share my response to shed some light:

I am confused about your connection to psychopathy here - are you claiming that all people who sell drugs are psychopaths? Psychopathy is a very specific concept that can only be diagnosed by a trained psychologist and is not a word that a police officer or probation officer should ever use unless they were told to use it by a psychological evaluation. It is also not true that psychopaths are born that way, though there are genetic factors that can put one at higher risk of it.

Here is a user-friendly fact sheet about psychopathy which also includes some information about crime statistics: https://psychopathyis.org/stats

This student with past law enforcement experience threw around the word psychopathy as a descriptor of a minor and non-violent drug offense as an explanation of their wrongdoing with zero understanding of the meaning behind the word they were using. While I obviously have no insight into the grades of other students, I sincerely hope this student got a 0 on the discussion assignment for that week for utterly failing at writing anything that came close to answering the prompt. But based on how many students just like this I was encountering in higher-level courses, I somehow doubt that.

So was it worth it?

No. Definitely not. I cannot more strongly emphasize how incredibly worthless a degree in Criminal Justice is to anyone considering that as a degree program. As I mentioned in my preface, you will learn things. There is much more to the program than just criminal justice. But all the time you spend taking criminal justice classes could be far better spent on literally anything else.

My opinion of this degree is the view that a Criminal Justice degree is just an attempt to shift what would normally be on-the-job training into a degree path, since departments started requiring a college degree. It introduces very little valuable information that you would either already learn going through the academy or could easily just be looked up on Google. My experience has emphasized why people repeatedly say that a Criminal Justice is "easy" and that many graduate programs and more prestigious jobs will not consider it if you were to apply with only that.

But I also do not want to sugar-coat this as just a waste of time. This degree program is actively harmful to our criminal justice system as a whole. It leaves people getting the degree who want to pursue law enforcement careers woefully unequipped to do so. Despite departments requiring a college degree to apply, I do not personally believe that a Criminal Justice degree, in particular, makes a person any more qualified for a law enforcement position than someone without a degree. This experience has only left me deeply concerned about the lack of skill and intelligence in the individuals with stated goals of entering the law enforcement field. And that is a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

March 17, 2023