Williams: Nothing wrong with trade schools

In his recent column, “Yale is not a trade school” (Sept. 15), Matt Shaffer aptly highlights a dilemma facing Yale students today: the conflict between pursuing “useful” skills-oriented courses or “impractical” academic ones. By stating simply that Yale is “not a trade school,” though, Shaffer misses the deeper identity crisis at play (note: he never stated what Yale is). As such, his suggested solution — avoid pre-professional courses — yanks the head off a nasty weed but leaves the root strangling dear Yale.

Shaffer is right that history, economics, literature and everything else Yale has to offer should not be mere pretext for picking up writing, research and computation skills, but parts of what we believe the educated alumna and alumnus need to know to synthesize whole understandings from the scattered data of this world.

Yet the problem is not that courses focusing explicitly on teaching skills are now crowding out our beloved (but, Shaffer would have us believe) useless humanities; the problem is that many Americans believe — and Yalies are coming to believe — that nothing but isolated skills and unrelated facts can be taught. Pointing out an unseemly growth on the body of knowledge at universities, Shaffer has missed the more pressing issue of this body’s dismemberment.

The University has abdicated its responsibility to create a coherent and complete education for its students; as a result, the “uni” of university has been fractured into myriad fields and courses, nothing related and nothing required, that compete for shoppers’ enrollment. Such radical academic freedom, while it no doubt lessens the conflicts that would arise from a core curriculum, has allowed market forces and relativism to deconstruct what is worth learning into four years of escapism and credit counting. Most Yalies find their way through all right, relying on friends, relatives and Blue Book sortilege to contrive an undergraduate career; those that don’t succeed can’t complain, at least not about anything Yale did.

The answer, then, is not merely to avoid classes that impart marketable skills and knowledge, since I would argue that practical tidbits frequently infiltrate the sacred grounds of academic study. (After all, if one wishes to become an academic, isn’t all academic study pre-professional?) To purge the Blue Book of such courses entirely, if it were possible, would still leave us with the problem of incoherence while adding the burden of irrelevance. Trade schools are not the enemy, but a different type of animal. Dismissing them as “lesser” institutions does not restore the value to our own; it just makes us elitist bullies.

What we must do is counteract the detrimental effects of the market on institutions of higher learning that claim to teach the liberal arts, if Yale is one of them. This means taking a stand for those liberal arts, a shared course of study that students take because it is the best foundation for learning and life. Of course, such a step means inhibiting choice, a difficult option to sell to high school students. But let’s face it: Most high school students don’t know what they want. They are bright and talented individuals harassed by the question “What are you going to do with your life?” and they come to universities like Yale seeking the best preparation possible.

Instead of giving them that preparation, colleges today provide only temporary distraction from the haunting question, allowing customers four years of unchecked freedom and plenty of resources. This makes people happy, like children set loose in a grocery store, but providing all the food you could want does not guarantee the nutrition you need.

If Yale is going to remain valuable in today’s world, it needs more than a calorie-count diet for students to follow; it needs to provide the guidance through a complete, rigorous course of study for which students seek its hallowed halls. In order to do that, choices must be made and not simply multiplied.

I am afraid that our administrators are mired too deeply in funding and marketing Yale to take a leadership role in substantially improving the product, especially by such controversial means as imposing a core curriculum. Indeed, why change a liberal arts-flavored global research university with plenty of nearby restaurants (and a farm, if you like farming!) when it’s so sell-able, so “anything you could possibly want”? They may fear that such a disjointed smorgasbord of knowledge and activities overwhelms students and will eventually lower customer satisfaction so much that Yale loses precious alumni money along with all meaning. But the administration can continue giving boundless freedom and resources and then simply blame the students if a quality education did not result.

So be it. Until the Yale administration takes seriously its responsibility to guide the education of its students, current undergraduates will have to take up that responsibility.

I, as a recent alumna, suggest that students undertake this challenge with all due humility and consideration. Humility, because you can only learn if you accept that there are things you do not know and teachers who know more, and consideration because a balanced curriculum that prepares you for life is difficult to find, even — and especially — at a place like Yale.

It’s not an easy task, and life would be a lot easier on students if the administration took it up on their behalf, but shaping a worthy education at Yale is the only way to keep that name worth something.

Meredith Williams is a 2009 graduate of Silliman College.


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  • The Contrarian

    I think we need more of what you term “elitist bullies.”

    Yale should be different from everywhere else — or Yarvton should be different from state schools, diploma mills, “trade” schools… Students should avoid grim pre-professionalism and administrators should discourage it.

  • Y’08, who wishes I did DS

    Yale can start by making Directed Studies mandatory. Easy enough.

  • MW to #1

    Are you honestly arguing that requiring 2 credits each of WR, QR, Sci, Hu and so forth makes for a coherent education? Perhaps if you have an advisor who knows you very well and can guide you through all of Yale’s offerings. However, Yale’s academic advising is hampered by the fact that many freshmen come in not knowing what they want to do with advisors whom they’ve just met (and who have teaching obligations in a field not necessarily related to their student).

    I love my alma mater, and I am confident that I received an excellent education at Yale. Looking back, though, I wonder how much better my experience might have been had I been pushed early on to take a rigorous course of study that included not just random courses I found interesting (in subjects I was most comfortable in), but survey courses in history, literature, science, economics and so forth. Moreover, wouldn’t it be different to have classmates of your year in the same courses, so that you could actually discuss what you’re learning and broaden horizens beyond your more specialized field of interest? DS’s additional application struck me as condescending and annoying; why should I apply for some special program when I already was accepted to Yale – didn’t that alone guarantee me the best education possible? Now I’m not so sure it does…

    I remember being a headstrong freshman, thinking I knew what I wanted to study and wanted nothing more than the freedom to choose courses. Back then, I saw a student’s talking about how she had the flexibility to change majors 7 times as a major selling point. Now, I’m just beginning to realize the disadvantages of educational anarchy and the advantages that a more structured education would bestow.

  • CC’09

    Y’08, the fact that you wish you did DS doesn’t mean that all of us should’ve been forced to take it.

    I’m a lover of literature, philosophy, and history; I would’ve enjoyed most of what was covered in DS. It still would’ve been a waste of my freshman year. I needed that time to explore new departments, study fields that I had less experience in, and start to pick a major. Thanks to that freedom to explore, I wound up in a field that’s a wonderful fit for me, at the intersection of the humanities, cognitive science, and math. Five years ago, I chose Yale /because of/ its flexible curriculum, and it turned out to be one of the best-made choices of my life. Mandatory DS could only have detracted from that experience.

  • Y’09, who wishes I hadn’t done DS

    #3: I hope not. Not unless Yale is going to appoint faculty members who are actually knowledgeable in the subjects to teach those courses. As it is, it’s too hit-or-miss.

  • diploma mill worker

    to #2-

    few of us here are truly brilliant from an academic standpoint- how many Yale students go on to earn PhDs then get tenured faculty positions at leading universities? I’m going to guess no more than a handful of each graduating class. The rest of us need to find a mundane job in the private sector or government.

    Hiring managers are looking for very specific skills and the catch 22 of relevant experience. Pre-professional students- say at Penn- who angle for internships from the summer before freshman year- end up becoming stronger candidates for jobs in banking and consulting. I agree this is not what everyone wants to do, but there are no other entry-level jobs that pay nearly as much for 22 year olds with virtually zero “real-world” experience.

  • Wondering

    Applicants and parents wondering what students will learn at Yale, and at other colleges, might want to find out: http://www.whatwilltheylearn.com/

    Stand out piece, Ms. Williams. Either Yale taught you well or someone did a great job admitting talent.

  • Y ’10

    Dividing the university and its courses into such distinct discipline-oriented departments just seems to be a bad way to sustain the whole liberal ideal.

  • Recent Alum

    #3: The only problem with making DS mandatory is that by forcing uninterested students to take it, you make DS classes much less worthwhile for those who are genuinely interested in learning about and discussing the western cannon with their peers. Part of the program’s appeal comes from the community of scholars that it fosters. But otherwise I would absolutely agree that this would be a good start. Incidentally, I wish I had done DS too.

  • glc

    This op-ed is based on a serious mis-reading of the original column it tries to argue with. I suggest you re-read that article more carefully, so as to actually understand that which you are arguing with.

  • MW to #11

    I read Mr. Shaffer’s article and – in the typical style of YPU debate – used his discussion of pre-professional courses as a springboard for what I wanted to talk about and what I consider the deeper issue at play: Yale’s identity crisis and the dis-unity of the university today.

    In case you didn’t read my own article carefully (perhaps taking the main idea from the title, which I didn’t add), I don’t actually disagree with his idea that “Yale is not a trade school”. I just thought the more interesting question to go into next was: well, what is it, then?

    As for the idea that students should “avoid classes that impart mere skills,” yes, I did take that idea to the extreme, but I did so in order to argue that academics lose out by avoiding classes where they must work to learn how do process new information (e.g. economics) and by arguing that their study is above usefulness; it’s both hard to sell in a job interview, for those of us not wealthy enough to study for leisure, and such an attitude ignores the real value to potential employers of the – for lack of a better term – critical thinking, reading, writing, and other skills you pick up in a balanced education. I don’t think that students really are forced “to choose between real education and financial security” if the real education – the liberal arts which I believe Mr. Shaffer and I both cherish – are restored to a place of value in society and recognized as classes that impart “mere skills” and then some – the best preparation for life.

    What is most important to my thinking is that (a) we avoid puffing up our own education by looking down on those who go to school explicity to train for work and (b) we Yalies take courses that are challenging enough and related enough that – though there may be skills-based courses and useful training involved – our primary concern is the whole outcome. This holistic approach to education makes education more valuable on the market, but as soon as we ask what the market wants first, our focus shifts away from what we should learn to mere formal signifiers of learning (credits, grades) that detract from our education.