As my sixth shopping period experience winds to a close, I want to give some attention to perhaps one of the most despised components of the Yale undergraduate experience: the mandatory science credits.
In theory, the two required science credits serve to ensure “diverse intellectual pursuits for all Yale College students while encouraging flexibility and freedom to expand on individual interests, explore new curiosities, and take academic risks.” Hogwash. In practice, the science credits as they work now fail on all these counts and do active harm to the academic mission of Yale College.
For dedicated science students, the science requirement is meaningless. To non-science majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate science courses like organic chemistry or molecular biology. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to medical school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.
What are the alternatives? Large lecture classes taught essentially at high school levels, or seminars of the same stripe. Everyone knows about them, and everyone goes to them when in need of science credits. The work is rarely, if ever, intellectually stimulating for the student, and, perhaps worse, these courses are a waste of time for the unlucky professors stuck teaching them.
Instead of spending more time on their truly interested and more advanced students or on personal research, they need to engage with students who refuse to answer even the most basic questions when the teacher tries to have some interaction in lecture. No doubt the astronomy professors have cursed the requirement more than once during their respective stays at Yale.
But worse, the science credit often gets in the way of classes the student would find more interesting and derive more intellectual stimulation from. There’s such a wealth of offerings at Yale that every little spot in someone’s four-year schedule is a highly coveted prize. If we eliminated the science requirement, perhaps the security-track global affairs major would take a course on education policy and decide he wanted to become a school administrator instead of secretary of defense.
The opportunity to experiment should not be confined to the strict boundaries of the Yale administration’s vision. Instead, the administration should trust students to take those different classes themselves.
For those who find the suggestion of doing away with the science distributional requirement altogether unpalatable, I have another proposal.
The Yale website suggests that “close study of a science develops critical faculties that educated citizens need,” including an ability to evaluate expert opinion, distinguish demagoguery from science and develop new modes of thought via theoretical inquiry and experimental analysis.
If Yale College is interested in producing educated citizens, then instead of the hodgepodge of random lectures on topics that will never pertain to most humanities majors’ careers and lives (and let’s not kid ourselves — “Galaxies and the Universe” is not going to inspire confidence from major engineering or biotech companies), Yale should reduce the required science credits to one, get rid of the usual courses for non-science majors and create SCIE100 — “Public Science.”
The course could be a general overview of a bunch of aspects of science about which active citizens need to be informed. A survey of the technologies and processes behind genetically modified foods, global warming, clean energy and fossil fuel production, DNA as applied to criminal cases and paternity tests, and many more everyday topics would be far more beneficial than many of the current offerings.
By comparison, the quantitative reasoning distributional requirement leads humanities majors to learn important skills like basic microeconomics, statistics and programming. The classes currently offered in that field fulfill their stated mission. But, by and large, the current classes non-science majors take fail the task they were created to carry out. They deserve reconsideration – and perhaps, ultimately, the axe.
Michael Magdzik is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.