In liberal arts wager, odds are against us

My late-shopping-period course-selection anxiety disappeared during a moment in a seminar last week, upon hearing the second most insulting thing I’ve ever heard from a professor. After ascertaining (by the traditional show of hands) that everyone in the room had done the assigned reading, the professor attempted to spark a discussion by asking, “So … what did you think?” Needless to say, no one responded.

It’s incidents like this one (which will doubtless recur throughout campus this week as sections begin for most classes) that tempt me to side with my friends in the natural sciences, many of whom read and discuss intellectual works on their own time but prefer that their 36 Yale College courses equip them with more substantive knowledge. The rest of us, however, have bet our education on the implicit promise of the liberal arts institution: that there is more value to the discussion of ideas in a classroom setting than there is to even the most erudite late-night common-room bull session.

But despite how much we have riding on the wager that classes can tell us more than “What do you think?”, much of the evidence suggests that they don’t. Students rarely seem to get much out of sections even when they have done the reading and attended lectures — and frequently, the two of these are treated as substitute goods. This isn’t helped by TAs who spend sections making sure everyone “understands” the reading, or professors who say things such as: “People have been writing about this for almost a hundred years; there’s really nothing new to say about it.”

That was the most insulting thing I’ve heard. At the time, I wondered what the professor thought of fields such as philosophy or literature, which by his reasoning should have perished millennia ago. Then again, some do assume these fields have been exhausted: most notably the Directed Studies program, which by implying that the Western intellectual tradition ended somewhere between World War I and the mid-20th century turns philology into something like necrophilia.

Students shouldn’t enter Yale puffed up with their own insight; the study of past tradition is partly necessary because it can introduce a certain humility and perspective to those who enter every ongoing conversation convinced that they have something new to say. But as Yale’s compromise with Peru highlighted, the university is not the museum: those objects of study that no longer yield insight do not belong here. The balance of dialogue between past and present — not to mention between oneself and one’s peers, a balance few section attendees manage to strike — is instrumental to the liberal arts’ promise that rather than teaching students what to think about for the rest of their lives, it will teach them how to think.

In order for critical thinking to be learned, it must presumably be taught. Otherwise Yale’s requirement that every professor teach at the undergraduate level would be foolish, as her students could gain much more by reading the research she spent the time doing instead. But while some disciplines fail to give their students agency in critiquing the texts they study, others give them so much that they tacitly encourage working against the text rather than with it. (I was once in an anthropology seminar where the professor had to intervene in a lively discussion to ask, “Is there anything at all in the book that you found valuable?”)

While it’s clear that different areas of study require different modes of thought — hence distributional requirements — it takes little more than common sense to believe that there must be a happy medium: between picking works apart and swallowing them whole, between the emptiness of “what do you think?” and the hardness of “nothing new to say.” When approaches to learning vary so much between professors and departments, and between students who learn formally versus informally, it’s hard to see any unity to undergraduate education.

Recently, Yale has looked favorably on the idea of inducing a campuswide dialogue on student culture, as evidenced by its bold decision to require all members of the freshman class to read a book on race relations. Perhaps we can take steps to evaluate our culture of learning as well and try to find some common ground as a “community of scholars” in our attitude toward the knowledge given to us in the classroom.

But really, this argument itself is nothing new; it just rarely gets applied. Since Yale has yet to offer public TA evaluations, I offer this as a guide to choosing a section: Choose a TA who directs students toward the richest veins of inquiry that a work has to offer, and then allows them to engage with the text and one another. Otherwise, you might as well stay home.

Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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