WASHINGTON: Save the great idea of the liberal arts

Great Big Ideas is a class with an ambitious goal, and given its title and its slogan — “a mile wide and an inch deep” — it makes little pretense about it. Each week during the two-hour seminar, led by Adam Glick ’82, the founder of the company that runs the class, and Provost Peter Salovey, we attack a different discipline. Not discuss, but attack — launching a verbal assault on core ideas of the subject. Topics range from physics to linguistics to art, culminating in a final discussion (appropriately) of education.

There is no expert around during the class discussion to provide a final word (except, of course, for psychology, courtesy of Salovey). Before class, students watch an hour-long video lecture by an expert in the field and do some basic readings, enough to give us a sense of the big questions and ideas of the subject. Each seminar leaves us with more questions than answers, which is what any good class does.

Some faculty have complained that this class is not worthy to be included in the Yale curriculum. What could Mr. Glick, an investor without a Ph.D. (gasp!), teach students in 12 weeks without a clear, coherent focus?

To begin this question with the word “what” demonstrates part of the problem. Yale has become so focused on content, research and prestige that we constantly forget it is the act of learning that has brought us all here. A better-formed question would ask how. Glick makes teaching and learning his main priority. Returning to Yale’s original mission of educating minds, not serving as a beacon to attract celebrity professors, this class shifts the university’s focus from research to teaching. In this class, education is once again viewed as an end in and of itself.

At some point, Yale subscribed to the same misguided paradigm as its academic rivals: the expert model. The expert model posits that the best person to teach is the person who knows most about the subject. So what? This model sacrifices the values that a liberal arts university like Yale should stand for — academic exploration and integrated learning across a variety of disciplines.

Put simply, a Yale education has become too narrow — with 12 to 14 of our courses devoted to a major and another third devoted to distributional requirements, a mere 12 classes are left for true academic exploration. Great Big Ideas exposed students to material they would have never imagined studying. Through a breadth-to-depth education model, Big Ideas provides a forum to both discuss the crucial topics that might not necessitate more than two hours of direct learning while also piquing enough interest in a discipline that a student might feel inclined to delve deeper into an area he or she normally would not be interested in. The latter should be especially attractive to Yale, given the fact that the majority of its student body chooses to major in just five fields.

Taking this class has helped me develop skills applicable to a variety of post-Yale occupations. The class is an exercise in diving headfirst into a subject I’ve never seen before, and practice makes perfect. I have learned to write concisely, to articulate my thoughts in a timely manner, to challenge ideas and to defend ideas, even working with imperfect knowledge. Learning to ask the questions that will allow me to orient myself in an unfamiliar environment is a crucial skill. All of this is an impressive feat for a single semester.

From the time we enter this campus, Yalies are reminded that we have an obligation to lead the world in whatever we choose to do. It is time we start asking the same from our institution. The administration’s decision to permit the Great Big Ideas course illustrates the risk the university was willing to take to defend the values of a liberal arts education. Hopefully, the rest of Yale will pick up where Great Big Ideas leaves off.

Keith Washington is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at keith.washington@yale.edu.


  • River_Tam

    You know nothing, Jon Snow.

    This is unadulterated BS: http://www.floatinguniversity.com/courses

    You think this course will give you any insight into any discipline? Believing that this course is anything more than an intellectual circlejerk of bright but untrained minds is a fantasy. Congrats, you have listened to “The Universe in a Nutshell”, but you still can’t explain how your microwave oven works. You’ve listened to “Do Not Pass Go”, but you still calculate out the Cournot equilibrium (because that would require math). You’ve listened to “Art Now”, but you still can’t explain what makes Liszt and Chopin different and similar. You probably can’t even pick them out of a lineup. I feel like Robin Williams monologuing to Matt Damon right now, but it’s all true.

    All this class will do is convince arrogant students that they know everything about everything. Tackling physics without even a single undergraduate-level course in the discipline? Does Mr. Washington know anything that watching a few TED talks could not have taught him? True mastery of a discipline lies in rigorous practice, dedicated application, and a lifetime of devotion. Socrates and Aristotle did not preach that the Liberal Arts should be taught by each student learning the lyre for a week. Instead, they invested years of schoolings into core competencies and encouraged true mastery of fields.

    You can no more spend a week on physics and expect to have any understanding of it than you can spend a week playing the violin or a week painting and expect to have mastered these disciplines.

    > I have learned to write concisely, to articulate my thoughts in a timely manner, to challenge ideas and to defend ideas, even working with imperfect knowledge. Learning to ask the questions that will allow me to orient myself in an unfamiliar environment is a crucial skill. All of this is an impressive feat for a single semester.

    Let me guess – you’re a philosophy or polisci major (or maybe even EPE, the haven of all epistemologically arrogant sophomores). They’re the types who are most likely to wax about how courses taught them to “write concisely”, to “articulate my thoughts”, to “challenge and defend ideas” with “imperfect knowledge”, and “learning to ask questions”. These are considered valuable skills for people who major in disciplines that don’t require actual mastery of facts or hard skills that aren’t assumed of all semi-competent human beings.

    Here’s a tip – you can get a far greater experience from taking real *substantial* courses in disciplines outside your comfort zone. Take CPSC 201 or PHYS 180 or CHEM 220 or ECON 121 or even MUS 112. Those classes will actually be sink-or-swim classes for you, and not a cushy courses that “exposes” students to material that they will never understand.

    God, I hate Yalies.

    • yalengineer

      I agree with everything but the last part.

    • ldffly

      River__Tam, I agree with the sentiment of your letter, but the mention of philosophy might indicate more the current state of the discipline than its inherent value or lack thereof. Philosophy used to be a demanding academic discipline with high standards and serious content. You assume as much by referencing Aristotle and Socrates.

      The discipline has been sinking in the last 30 years. I could take the time to explain (referencing Judy Butler among others) but it would take up too much space.

      • River_Tam

        I agree that the state of Philosophy used to be better than it is.

        • Reddit

          I gotta tell ya, your lambasting Washington for pretending to know more than he does and your simultaneous claim that philosophy used to be better or the (tacit) agreement that the discipline has been in decline comes off as slightly ironic.

    • eli2015

      I’m curious what you think about Directed Studies, River_Tam

    • Inigo_Montoya

      What was your major, River?

    • Jaymin

      meh. Obviously, this class isn’t going to give you a comprehensive understanding of anything. But at the very least, it’ll give you the competency to understand the parlance of different fields. If you’re a philosophy major and your friend wants to tell you about his senior research in physics, at least you’ll have the minimal understanding needed to hold that conversation.

      In the end, classes like these won’t make you an expert, but they’ll enable communication.

  • River_Tam

    Also, the ethics of the entire thing – Floating University and the $495 fee and its dubious ties to Yale via donations – strikes me as shady.

  • yalengineer

    Is not the third for distributional requirements for academic exploration?

    • River_Tam

      No, it’s for taking The Joy of Counting and then proclaiming yourself an expert on number theory.

      • ldffly

        I’ll hit you again River__Tam. Another strike in philosophy’s favor because there was a time when familiarity with number theory was a necessity for a graduate diploma in the field. Some of the modern masters (e.g., Frege) contributed to the field. It’s also the case that certain issues in number theory pushed into philosophy of mathematics, logic, and theory of knowledge.

        • River_Tam

          There’s a reason that Godel is known first as a mathematician.

      • hrsn

        Who does this? Anyone you know?

        • River_Tam

          Yes. It usually starts with them trying to tell me about how cool encryption, number theory, or Mathematica is.

          Oh, you learned about prime numbers this morning? Please, tell me everything you know about them.

  • ldffly

    I have been disturbed about a number of trends, not to mention specific courses, within the Yale curriculum over the last 20 years. A number of courses wouldn’t have gotten to the concept stage years ago. These courses wouldn’t have occurred to anyone. Here we are today, however, with this tripe showing up from time to time, apparently with administration approval.

    • hrsn


      • ldffly

        Well, some courses I’ve seen in recent years include “Natural Hazards” and “Biology of Gender and Sex.” In the 70s, both Brewster and Giamatti probably would have turned thumbs down on those courses. Some of the low level physics offerings probably wouldn’t have been offered years ago, not because of administration criticism, but probably because the physics faculty might have gagged over them.

        Majors? The various area studies have proliferated, but to be fair, the ball got rolling for those courses of study back in the early 70s. Might the Race, Ethnicity, and Migration major be included here as a troublemaker? Maybe a good area of study for a graduate student in a number of other disciplines, but as a B.A., that one has always seemed iffy to me. Just my idiosyncratic opinion, there.

        I want to be even handed. Back in the 70s, we did have the College Seminar program. The courses generally weren’t bad, possibly because they did have to pass muster with the administration, but they were the bane of some faculty. When Giamatti came in, he wanted the whole program gone because of the occasional clunker course or clunker instructor (e.g., Howard Cosell). That abolition never happened, but he forced restrictions on the number of those seminars one could count toward the B.A.

        I have to relate one example. One particularly notorious seminar comes to mind–one on the recording industry that was taught in the late 70s when I was a graduate student. A record producer (name escapes me) got the approval to teach a course on the music industry, enrollment strictly limited, criteria for enrollment unknown to anyone but the instructor. Many students applied, few were chosen. The course met once per week, each week featured a visit from a famous artist. Joni Mitchell came once. Rumor had it that Dylan showed up one week. Assignments? None. Paper? None required. Exams? What!!!???

        So when those rejected students got wind of what was going on, they became resentful and snitched to the administration. When the administration looked into it and found that no final was scheduled, they forced a final. Oh what sturm und drang that brought for a few days!

        The conclusion to draw is that no age is pure gold. There’s always a little dross here and there. I just think in recent years the administration and faculty have gotten lax.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Great Big Ideas”? The title sounds like it was designed for third graders.

    Having spent 17 1/2 years in four institutions (Ithaca College, Kent State University, Yale Divinity School, Bread Loaf School of English) I conclude that half of classroom education is STUDYING how effectively or ineffectively the human being leading the course organizes and presents information, creates a system of justice, and behaves with integrity–or the lack of it.

    It’s also awe inspiring to be in the presence of an expert.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’89

    M.A., M.Ed.

  • The Anti-Yale

    M. Div. ’80–not ’89

  • The Anti-Yale

    Only control freaks care, Peter Griffin.