Tao: In defense of minors

In a recent editorial, the News opposed the Yale College Council’s call for academic minors, arguing that minors would be at odds with Yale’s liberal arts tradition (“News’ View: Yale should not add minors,” Feb. 5). Specifically, the News contended that minors would “allow and encourage Elis … to rack up additional resume items … at the cost of a truly diverse, liberal education.”

I write to suggest that the News’ piece, while well-intentioned, failed to carefully consider the evidence and data put forth by the YCC’s recent report on the issue. If anything, the Council’s work has shown that the institution of academic minors would in no way diminish Yale’s “truly diverse, liberal education.”

Implied in the News’ argument was the suggestion that academic depth is to be pursued exclusively through the major, and that academic breadth is to be fulfilled separately via non-major courses of study. While this logic is alluring in its simplicity, such rigid compartmentalization glosses over the potential to improve both depth and breadth within the Yale College curriculum.

More specifically, while there should be depth in major-oriented studies and breadth in non-major academic pursuits, both depth and breadth should be stressed concurrently within the two spheres of study. As shown by the increasingly diverse range of course offerings within majors, and by the Committee on Yale College Education’s now-implemented recommendation in 2003 to add more pedagogical structure to the distributional requirements, there is a strong precedent and need for both elements of the liberal arts to be emphasized in tandem.

That said, under this interpretation of the liberal arts, the status quo and its single concentration system appear not nearly as “sacrosanct” as the News dogmatically suggested.

For starters, the faculty’s efforts to introduce structured depth outside the majors have largely failed to produce more in-depth study. That is, the CYCE’s revamped distributional requirements — conceptualized to serve as catalytic “starting points” for further academic pursuits — serve more often than not as end goals, rarely motivating students to engage in serious study outside of their major-oriented pursuits.

Furthermore, there unquestionably still exists a need for diversity within and among majors. Simultaneously, the current system — by offering no alternative to majoring — also pigeonholes students with more than one serious academic interest into pursuing two majors, thereby severely handicapping their academic freedom.

Due to an increasingly competitive job market, students are electing, now more than ever, to major in fields commonly perceived as more “practical” and “career-oriented.” This trend has manifested itself most clearly in recent drops in humanities, languages and arts course enrollment, were coupled with simultaneous increases in social science enrollment. As reported by the News last April, humanities majors made up 37 percent of all students last year, down from about 50 percent in 1986. As the same article also reported, social sciences majors comprised 35 percent of all students last year, up from 25 percent in 1986.

Needless to say, the aforementioned problems in depth, breadth and pre-professionalism illustrate the dire need for change. Fortunately, the introduction of academic minors would likely improve undergraduate education at Yale, particularly by strengthening the University’s commitment to the liberal arts.

Among other benefits, minors would add much-needed depth to students’ non-major academic engagements by incentivizing work beyond that currently mandated by the distributional requirements. While minors may not “teach a student the life of an academic,” as the News wrote of majors, the additional time spent studying the particulars of a discipline via a minor would be more beneficial to a student’s education — and more in line with the liberal arts curriculum — than what the CYCE referred to as the “incoherent, dilettantish smattering” of courses currently pursued by students outside their majors.

Minors would also promote much-needed breadth by affording double-majoring students the opportunity to pursue a major and a minor. Furthermore, they would increase the overall interdisciplinarity of Yale’s academic offerings. More specifically, they would likely encourage the creation of formal courses of study in some of the most cutting-edge and interdisciplinary fields. At Princeton, for example, Sustainable Energy and Urban Studies — programs that might have never surfaced as majors — were recently unveiled in the form of the school’s functional equivalent to academic minors.

Minors would also advance the mitigation of pre-professional influence on academic decision-making by encouraging students currently pursuing more “practical” disciplines to either minor in a less career-oriented discipline or minor in the original “practical” discipline and major in a less career-oriented one. In both scenarios, minors would engender a campus culture less fixated on, as the News wrote, “rack[ing] up additional resume items.”

Given that the humanities, languages and arts are commonly perceived as less career-oriented, they stand to benefit from a decrease in the influence of post-graduation plans on students’ curricular decision-making. And, because many of the departments perceived as more practical suffer the largest burdens in terms of student demand for faculty resources, minors would aid them as well by alleviating their current strains.

At Harvard, which established “secondary fields” (the school’s equivalent of academic minors) in 2006, such benefits have been clearly evinced in practice. Emily Neill, the undergraduate program administrator of Harvard’s Economics Department, recently wrote to the YCC in an e-mail, “Secondary fields have been a godsend to us … Having the secondary field … has enabled countless students to have Econ on their transcripts while freeing them up to pursue other interests.”

Ultimately, the chief cause of the status quo’s shortcomings is a critical disconnect between the College’s academic options — and associated incentive structures — and students’ motivations and goals. The introduction of academic minors would reorient the existing incentive structures and allow students to strike a happy medium between improving their job prospects and upholding the integrity of the liberal arts.

Of course, minors ought to be implemented with prudence, ideally with limitations on their use. At Harvard, students may receive credit for only one secondary field. Such limitations have proven thus far successful at preventing the “rack[ing] up” of credentials anticipated by the News.

Implementation issues aside, we need only look to Harvard’s administration for further reassurance against the possibility of over-specialization and over-achievement. Harvard’s associate dean of undergraduate education, Stephanie Kenen, wrote in an e-mail to the YCC, “We are encouraged that sophomores are not declaring secondary fields at their earliest opportunity. This means that they are not feeling the pressure to do this immediately, and are taking their time to make their choices and decide if it is the right choice for them.”

The News’ editorial noted that the roots of the single concentration system can be traced to Harvard, which introduced majors in 1910. The rest of the Ivy League and colleges across the country later adopted the same system. But while the News correctly identified the historical foundations of the present system, it overlooked one essential fact: Harvard and all but one of Yale’s fellow Ivy League institutions — Brown is the other exception — have since introduced academic minors in some form.

It bears now mentioning that no intimate cohort of students — whether serving on student government or writing for an undergraduate newspaper — can fully examine all the subtleties and nuances of the issue at hand, particularly those pertaining to curricular review and faculty development. Nonetheless, the inadequacies of the status quo are becoming ever more alarming and ever more difficult to ignore. One can only hope the current student dialogue on minors will serve a function similar to that of the ideally employed distributional requirements: as “starting points” for substantive inquiry.

To fail to engage in such discussion — indeed, to fail to seriously consider the potential for academic minors to lessen the malaises of the status quo — would be, in the News’ own words, “at the cost of a truly diverse, liberal education.”

Richard Tao is a junior in Silliman College and the president of the Yale College Council.

Comments

  • a reader

    Tao presents a clear, insightful argument in support of academic minors at Yale. Though I do not agree with everything Tao writes, I now realize the need for an open and honest debate on the subject. I look forward to hearing faculty reaction.

  • Y' 09

    This is a neat claim:

    "Furthermore, they would increase the overall interdisciplinarity of Yale’s academic offerings. More specifically, they would likely encourage the creation of formal courses of study in some of the most cutting-edge and interdisciplinary fields. At Princeton, for example, Sustainable Energy and Urban Studies — programs that might have never surfaced as majors — were recently unveiled in the form of the school’s functional equivalent to academic minors."

    I wonder what the Faculty's thoughts are on this?

  • jeez

    Rich, I'll only support minors if you promise to minor in brevity.

  • Calhoun 2011

    Thanks for writing this, Mr. Tao, and thanks for all the work the YCC has done and is doing on this and so many issues. As a sophomore who is very interested in two interrelated but decidedly distinct fields, I am faced with a choice between severely limiting the classes I take beyond my majors and being unable to pursue what I love. For me and for a lot of people, this has nothing to do with looking good on a resume, and everything to do with the opportunity to construct a thoughtful curriculum with department help without having to forgo our chance at the Liberal Arts education this university so prides itself on providing. The creation of minors would help me immeasurably, and not because of anything having to do with a job. (Though as this editorial rightly points out, the world being as it is, wouldn't be better if students didn't feel like they had to choose between professional success and the education that most interests them?)

  • Anonymous

    agree

  • Y '10

    Tao has done his research, and has brought forth several substantive reasons why a change in the status quo is necessary.

  • A reader

    I completely agree with Tao. I'm someone who gave up on doing a double major because of the depth of the requirements for the whole major. Nonetheless, I have taken a significant number of classes in this field (certainly enough to have a minor) and would have loved to have a chance to have this recognized officially by Yale. Minors would do this.

  • effing amazing

    just saw brian on tv

  • reuben for the win

    reuben is the only good cartoonist at yale.

    JE SUX!

  • Anonymous

    This is twice as long as any other YDN opinion piece. Do certain people get more space to write? Under what circumstances?

  • Anonymous

    Maybe Rich was trying to make a meta point here. That is, by writing and such obscene length, he is symbolically demolishing the notion that breadth is a positive in education.

  • Anonymous

    I don't understand you people.

    If you care deeply about another field besides your major, you're free to take as many classes as you'd like in that second field.

    "But," you whine, "if I just do that, I don't get any recognition for taking all those classes!"

    Aha. So, it turns out, this really /is/ just about racking up additional credentials. If this were about, say, learning, you could do it without an institutionalized program.

    Would having minors somehow enable you to take more classes? To learn more?

    If no, then what will this accomplish? It'll give Yalies one more point to score on the resume game. It'll add administrative strain to the faculty, as DUS's have to start advising minors as well as majors. It'll… give bored Yalies (the YCC) something silly to argue about? Which is, I think, what this is actually all about: how can we avoid doing real work by tinkering with the system?

  • I agree

    I couldn't agree more with Tao. So many of my friends have so much pressure to major in Economics because they feel it is a necessity for business school and a career in investment banking, business. Not to mention the pressure from parents, particularly in the case of international students from countries without regard for the liberal arts. Giving these students the opportunity to major in a subject of genuine interest, while still being able to demonstrate a cohesive program of studies in Economics on their transcript, will be of great service.

  • Y'09

    I just don't understand the need to have formal recognition for moderate depth of study in an area outside your major. If you're a bio major who loves music, take lots of music classes! Many departments even allow "senior project like" independent study for credit regardless of whether you are a major.

    My experience has been that most departments are very supportive of non-majors pursuing their subject beyond the intro level. Have other people encounter problems in this regard? If so, perhaps we can just address those problems instead of creating a whole new system that will come with its own problems.

  • Y'10

    Solid piece. The News was totally off-base assuming the most cynical position--that people would just use minors as "resume-padding"--and Mr. Tao refuted this effectively. (Just a thought: I wonder if "resume-padding" is on the minds of YDN staffers for other reasons…) As someone who has to choose between a miserable senior year and not completing a second major, I couldn't agree more with the logic and intellectual rigor of this editorial.

  • really?

    we hold our YCC president in such high esteem that he's "Mr. Tao"? I think "Rich" would do just fine.

  • Spherical Cow

    Someone needs to answer #11 and #13:

    Why do you need the recognition of a minor?

    Just take the classes you want …

  • Yale '09

    My two cents on the recognition issue -

    It ain’t pretty, but the truth is that Elis need recognition to motivate us. Many of us would not give taking more classes a second thought without some sort of formalized recognition. In some ways, majors are also grounded in the same logic.

    Anyways, to get to get the point – while minors do grant recognition, they appear overall beneficial to students because, as Tao says:

    “Minors would also advance the mitigation of pre-professional influence on academic decision-making by encouraging students currently pursuing more “practical” disciplines to either minor in a less career-oriented discipline or minor in the original “practical” discipline and major in a less career-oriented one.”

    My only question is whether or not students at Yale would actually transition to minoring in the less “practical” disciplines. The Harvard data brought up in the article seems promising, though.

  • Anonymous

    Calling Rich "Mr. Tao" isn't a sign of utmost respect or the like. Friends to friends say that all the time. Besides, many people call their friends by their last names.

  • Y'09

    @17 (re: recognition)
    I still don't get it. Choose the major you want. Take the courses you want.

    #17 highlights the two possibilities that Tao mentions:

    Case 1: students pursuing "practical" majors minor in a less-career oriented discipline

    How is this any different from just taking courses in that department?

    Case 2: students switch their "practical" major to a minor and major in what they actually want to study

    If some company cares more that you major in a given field than that you know something about that field, I have trouble believing that same company will be duly impressed by a minor.

  • Yale '09

    @ #19:

    We can debate all day about what may hypothetically happen, but the facts stand as they are:

    "Emily Neill, the undergraduate program administrator of Harvard’s Economics Department, recently wrote to the YCC in an e-mail, 'Secondary fields have been a godsend to us … Having the secondary field … has enabled countless students to have Econ on their transcripts while freeing them up to pursue other interests.'"

    Students have been using minors at similar universities to substitute for more "practical" majors like Economics. In the place of the more "practical" field, students at other universities have been pursuing studies in fields that genuinely interest them.

    Until you can back up your claims with hard evidence, it is hard for me to be convinced otherwise by mere speculation.

  • drace2

    I like both tofu ravioli and tofu apple crisp.
    Try them sometime. Just because it’s got tofu in it doesn’t mean it sucks.