Fisher: For broad minds and souls

School of Fisher

A university is supposed to teach its students to be educated citizens, to prepare them to participate among the world’s leading minds. There’s a problem, though. Universities create new fields of study without expanding the breadth of undergraduate education in turn. Students may be very well versed in one field, but the typical undergraduate’s general knowledge can be surprisingly slim.

Universities used to require that all students learn virtually the same things. In 1828, Yale published a “Report on the Course of Instruction.” The curriculum ranged from Homer to Euclid to Horace. Seniors read contemporary theologian William Paley. Universities around the country emulated Yale.

To be sure, such a course of study would not suffice today. Now undergraduates narrow their studies so dramatically that one could quite easily graduate without ever reading a word of Homer or Shakespeare, learning calculus, or both. One must study broadly, not just to be well-rounded, but also to have a real presence in any corner of the thinking world. Disciplines interact. Darwin and Heisenberg exploded the boundaries of literature nearly as much as Milton and Wordsworth. To understand one’s world, everyone must have at least some knowledge of recent scientific advances. Science means nothing out of its social context, so a chemist should study history, politics and literature if his work is to be anything more than an intellectual game.

After college, specialization is required. But here, for four years, we find an opportunity to explore. Distributional requirements are not enough. One can very easily take Ichthyology and never learn the slightest thing about the sciences that play a major role in the world; avoiding any history or English class is still easier.

Nor is it enough to endow students with skills, as Yale’s skills requirements suggest. In fact, skills, at least for these four years, should be frowned upon. Those can come later. Although I briefly considered applying for Yale’s Teacher Preparation program, I was happy to see it disbanded. So, too, do I object to majors in engineering and art. The undergraduate years should not be the time for pre-professional studies of any kind.

Considering the pathetic quality of American high schools at large, it is essential that college students study widely. More Americans than ever are going to college, so high schools are no longer the final stage of schooling for as many students. And the process of growing up has been prolonged. All these are reasons why college students should slow down, hold back — just for a little longer — their very specific curiosity, and work towards a grounding that will later underpin those specialized studies.

Although I was shocked to realize just how onerous a major is — is this really the liberal arts education I was promised? — I’ll grant that the idea of a major is not going away. Students will know one chosen field more deeply than any other. But there should be more room for the generalist — and perhaps everyone should be a bit more of a generalist.

The problem isn’t a lack of curiosity or an estrangement of today’s youth; in fact, it’s just the opposite. We are so eager to play a significant role, to meet the expectations of our elders and ourselves, that we fail to build up the necessary foundation. We need administrators, parents and teachers to force us to slow down and learn what we may think is beneath us.

As it did in 1828, Yale should take the lead to reform undergraduate curricula. We should have content requirements. Yale could require students take a certain number of survey courses in history, literature, and some sort of science or math.

I took a class in high school called Great Ideas in Mathematics. It was no gut, but the class focused on the beauty and importance of math throughout history. That class instilled in me a lifelong passion for math — infinitely more than Yale’s Math 120, which proved the subject can also be tedious and boring. With rigorous, broad classes like Great Ideas in all disciplines, Yale would teach its students to feast on ideas of every flavor.

So bring on the symphonies, the wine tastings, the lectures on Freud. By graduation, every student should be able to write her own top ten list of important moments, people, or works in every vital field of human endeavor. Seek truth and beauty in any form. Think and learn for sheer pleasure, rather than a culturally-imposed longing to improve the world. Drown yourself in the best of the past. Then, in a few years, after you’ve forgotten your passion for biomedical engineering or Foucault in the ecstasy of Plato or Newton, you can rediscover those esoteric interests with an idea of what they really mean. Only then will you be an educated person, ready to participate in a universe of men.

Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

Comments

  • yalebird

    “Yale could require students take a certain number of survey courses in history, literature, and some sort of science or math.”

    Y’know, high schools already do that sort of thing. Believe it or not, there’s a reason colleges have the concept of the (apparently “onerous”) major; it’s so that people can identify their true interests and pursue them in-depth. This is not to say that people shouldn’t be encouraged to broaden their interests, but to force them to study areas in which they may have genuinely no investment is comes close to threatening the idea of higher education.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Considering the pathetic quality of American high schools at large”

    This punching bag is starting to smell.

    The public schools in America have produced the greatest country on earth.

    The mandatory 12th grade education has produced the most educated voters on earth.

    Brown v. Board of education has produced an architectural site for the most peaceful 30 year revolution on earth (B.F. Skinner would be proud!)

    All of this with workers whose wages are embarrassingly modest.

    Stop beating up on the public schools.

  • River Tam

    > This punching bag is starting to smell. The public schools in America have produced the greatest country on earth.

    The public schools in America *a generation ago* produced the greatest country on earth.

    The current schools may or may not be doing so hot. I’m inclined to blame parents before teachers (although teachers are certainly part of the problem at the moment), but let’s not pretend like this generation has proven its education to be great or even good.

    > All of this with workers whose wages are embarrassingly modest.

    Their wages are perfectly in line with a 9-month job that lets them leave at closing bell, gives them tenure and pensions, and never demands that they hit a stressful deadline, impress a prospective client, or work weekends for the good of the company.

  • ldffly

    “Stop beating up on the public schools.” Why? If only the YDN gave us the space, I could do it for the next 100 pages, with ease. Even in the golden age of American public education, our systems had one big trouble–namely suspicion of intellect. Just check Jacques Barzun’s book “The House of Intellect,” or “Anti Intellectualism in American Life,” by Prof. Hofstadter.

    I won’t mention my K-12 Odyssey in the public school system in eastern MO, except to say that it was not very good. Any student who graduated from that system and did well later in life, did so in spite of their education.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Poor Joe Jackson goes bananas when I mention Hamden (as if an allusion to anything outside of Yale’s elitist, intellectual sphere in the larger New Haven community and suburbs is somehow indicative of my bucolic, pedestrian mind, reliving its tiny past ); but, Mr. Jackson and River Tam to the contrary, I had DYNAMITE teachers in the Hamden public schools —- English especially, but also Drama and Psychology—-pretty avant garde for 50 years ago: Carmella Sagnella, William Gerosa, Neil Topitzer, Beulah Peters, Carol Holt, Marilyn Goler, Elizabeth Hastings, William Costanza.

    Fifty years later, I remember them well.

  • River Tam

    > Mr. Jackson and River Tam to the contrary, I had DYNAMITE teachers in the Hamden public schools… 50 years ago.

    50 years ago, the use of contraceptives was illegal in Connecticut.

  • dalet5770

    Speaking of Science – every red blooded Yalie likes independent transport. I am kind of a poor slouch so I ride my Yamaha 250 Morpheus “hey you just metamorphosis” :) anyhow why can’t we build cars that are like bobsleds or toboggans wouldn’t it make a great impression on a first date

  • River Tam

    > I took a class in high school called Great Ideas in Mathematics. It was no gut, but the class focused on the beauty and importance of math throughout history. That class instilled in me a lifelong passion for math — infinitely more than Yale’s Math 120, which proved the subject can also be tedious and boring.

    Yeah, it’s much easier to talk about other people doing Math than actually doing it yourself.

  • The Anti-Yale

    What a drudge.

  • dalet5770

    Since were on the subject of broad minds – how about a topic that touches us all – “Reproductive health! As a man we know abortion and birth are one in the same since the baby comes out the same way and a woman has the right to choose – we should all agree that to subjugate a mans right of vitality by a woman not offering a condom before sex, is offensive if questions are raised about impropriety of the encounter and the women should face sexual assault charges. Furthermore, to subjugate a mans right of vitality in the workplace by affixing the term labor to the persistence of personnel is to change the constitution of the United States Work can be fun lets abort labor on this new year

  • YaleMom

    Sometimes dalet5770 is the only person who makes any sense around here!!

  • dalet5770

    Yale may pull its habbits out of rats – but someday it will have to pay the rats for going obove and beyond the call of duty

  • Jaymin

    Let’s be real here. The scope of knowledge has extended exponentially since 1828. Sure, you don’t want to be oblivious to other fields, but you’re not going to learn much beyond the basics if you try to cram in everything. “Studying widely” can be akin to studying barely nothing at all.

    If you become a Bio PhD, you entire career will depend on a very limited subset of facts. The history and Econ you learned sophomore year will be erased from memory within 5 years. Your conversations with non-work friends probably won’t be some ivory tower deconstruction of Kant.

    “Science means nothing out of its social context, so a chemist should study history, politics and literature if his work is to be anything more than an intellectual game.” What does that even mean? Sure, science can’t be divorced from its context, but how in the world will a Shakespeare class enhance my study of lymph node physiology.

    Scientists should indeed take literature and history classes, but out of curiosity and interest, not based on some BS pretext of it making you better at science.

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