TAYLOR: Learning to live with inanity

Why am I here?

It’s a question I have been asking myself a lot this semester. As in, why am I sitting in the back row of this gut QR lecture, picking at a Clif bar and obsessively checking my email? Put otherwise: Why does Yale have distributional requirements?

I’m pretty sure I am going to forget everything I am learning in this class, even if I actually put effort into it (which, of course, I don’t). I’m not lazy; I’m just being realistic.

I can just barely recall a time in high school when I was actually good at solving math problems. It’s hard to believe, though, because before taking my gut QR class, I completed an online QR skills assessment test in which I answered 5 of 13 multiple choice questions correctly.

So in the four semesters that have elapsed between my first (and, might I add, very legitimate) QR credit and this one, I have regressed from being a competent and fairly advanced problem solver into a fifth grader. A fifth grader in remedial math. I’m improving, of course, because I have to do weekly problem sets with actual math problems. But in two years, won’t I just be a fifth grader again?

This logic seemed pretty flawless to me. Happily, however, my mother was able to provide some perspective.

I was explaining to her, very reasonably, that I probably hadn’t done so well on my gut QR midterm. Some of the questions, it turned out, required me to have done more than skim the text and play with my phone during lecture. My mother was very concerned. Why hadn’t I been doing my reading, or paying attention in class? She was very stern.

I whined a little, faked some tears, and when she’d calmed down, confessed the truth: the lectures are excruciatingly boring. It’s pretty difficult to focus, and it all seems pretty useless. After all, English majors don’t need math or science. And I’m fairly certain that, after the semester ends, I’ll forget whatever facts I managed to cram in the night before the final.

Still, my mother was appalled. “Michelle,” she said quietly, “sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

“Even when they’re useless?” I asked.

“Especially then,” she said.

I was stunned. Of course, I realized, some tasks can be unpleasant. Generally, though, they have a real purpose which provides one some motivation to complete them. For example, I don’t like doing laundry, but there comes a time every few weeks when I really need clean underwear.

On the whole, I like my classes. I don’t always like writing papers or taking tests, but I always feel good for having learned a little more about something I love from an assignment. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed watching myself build skills I hope to use after college — if nothing else, I’m developing a way of understanding the world through literature. I think we all feel that way about our own fields of study: we enjoy learning from them, and that’s why we chose them.

But that’s not how life works. It’s shocking, I know. I’m still reeling a little bit. But people have to do things they don’t enjoy, even when it doesn’t benefit or satisfy them. Like obeying traffic laws and filling out tax returns — two things I have yet to do — we have to fulfill our distribution requirements, whether or not we find them gratifying or useful in the long term.

It doesn’t matter if you won’t remember a word of Swahili five years from now, or why that painting of that woman by that guy changed the course of Western art. You’re going to take that class and you’re going to pass, if only just barely, because you have to. In fact, to prepare you for life’s inanity, you should have to do more useless things to graduate from Yale, like holding your breath for five minutes, or paying really close attention to Mary Miller’s speech at the Freshman Assembly. Yale students need to realize, as viscerally and as boringly as possible, that life doesn’t make sense. I spent too much time feeling fulfilled and thoroughly educated by my program of study at Yale. Nothing should work that efficiently, and no one should be that satisfied. It simply isn’t natural.

Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, especially when they waste our time. And that’s why we have distribution requirements.

Michelle Taylor is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at michelle.a.taylor@yale.edu.


  • Dedwards

    The reason we have distributional requirements is to pay some flower child who teaches a useless class like Czech to live on Orange St….

    • Standards

      You’re so brave and grounded in reality, Edwards.

      Way to stick it to the man by taking on Feb Club and Yale gifts and languages you don’t like.

      A true hero.

      • River_Tam

        Hey, I have respect for Edwards, and any conservative who will put his name by what he writes in this comments section.

        Alternate comment: the first time ever a white male conservative got accused of “sticking it to the man”.

      • Dedwards

        upvotes speak for themselves

  • River_Tam

    We have distributional requirements because it’s socially acceptable for people like Ms. Taylor to flippantly write that she has to struggle through the easiest quantitative class at Yale. And it really shouldn’t be.

    “Math is hard, let’s go read Joyce!”

    • ColinRoss

      Disagree with Taylor if that’s your opinion, but I don’t think a heartfelt effort to offer a serious, if humorous, perspective that draws on her own worries and conversations with her mother should be qualified as flippant.

      • River_Tam

        I didn’t say that her perspective was flippant – her revelation that she’s really really bad at math was flippant.

        Imagine if a STEM major wrote that they were illiterate. That would ITSELF be the subject of a column, rather than shoehorned into a larger discussion of distributional requirements. But mathematical illiteracy is portrayed here as normal and nbd.

  • Skeptic

    A first: I agree with River_Tam… Big books with confusing words… clear ideas crisply expressed… “Joyce is too hard.. let’s go do math”

    • River_Tam

      To the contrary, I think a Yalie should graduate both knowing how to read Ulysses AND being able to prove Cauchy’s theorem.

      Most quantitatively-oriented students at Yale graduated having read real literature; virtually no humanities/social-science majors graduate having proved even a simple mathematical theorem (sorry, Econ doesn’t count, although Ben Polak’s Game Theory is a good gateway drug to proof-based math for the non-mathematically inclined)

      • RM80s

        Which Cauchy’s Theorem? Cauchy’s Integral Theorem, for example, though familiar to nearly all Yale mathematics majors, is going to be beyond the majority of Yale undergrads who are unlikely to have taken the prerequisites for a univalent complex variables course, much less the course itself. Likewise the “Cauchy Theorems” in Geometry and Group Theory. The Mean Value Theorem version is elementary, but few math majors or grad students or mathematicians I know think of this as “Cauchy’s Theorem,” except perhaps when teaching undergrads in calc (and I never called it such when I taught calc.)
        Ben Polak’s Game Theory, while a very nice intro to strategic thinking, can be a bit irritating specifically for its evasion of the formal proof part of micro theory relating to the Nash Equilibrium, namely the existence theorem based on either the Brower or Kakutani (a now gone but very fine Yale professor whose “baby” real variables instruction in Math 301 was a real pleasure) fixed point theorems. A lot of the discussion in Polak relies on there being an existence theorem, yet he, as far as I could see on the web version of the classes, never even mentions the fact, much less setting out an intuition for the theorem. It’s the one glaring omission I could see in the class, and akin, in some sense to leaving off the FTC proof in Calc. Otherwise a fantastic class, but not really much of a prep for doing proofs in mathematics.
        By the way, without the proofs, whatever it is you may be doing is not mathematics, it’s merely arithmetic or bookkeeping, so to make the distinction “proof based math” might be argued to be empty…
        Finally, as a litigator, I cannot tell you how very often quantitative and proof-making skills turn out to be exceeding useful in lawsuits. Prepping or taking testimony from, for example damages experts puts a premium on quantitative skills as well as on the ability to understand how people whose work focus is quantitative think. In regular life, an understanding of stats — say for election polling — is also quite useful (Stats is also useful in litigation document production for the new “predictive coding” methodologies.) An exposure to quantitative thinking is a window into how a very important segment of society thinks, and, if nothing else, forces the humanities focused to engage perhaps in an act of empathy, acknowledging “the other” and in that way can broaden one’s perspective in ways that can be quite useful as in the litigation examples above.

  • vlewis12

    Was this meant as some kind of inane meta-commentary? If so, bravo, very funny. If not, maybe the QR requirements can be waived so she can take more WRs.

    “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do!” The Berenstain Bears had better theses. Why would you run this?

    • River_Tam


      • vlewis12

        I **wish** Stan and Jan would write YDN op-eds.

    • GeoJoe

      This was my question! I literally spent 10 minutes debating with people at lunch whether this whole column was satire. I really am afraid that something in this column was serious…

  • yalengineer

    Builds character.

  • culturevulture

    TAYLOR: Learning to live with inanity

    It sounds like inanity is a disability and Taylor has it.

  • River_Tam

    This comment said something along the lines of “he’s saying what everyone else is afraid of saying”. Why was this removed?

  • JE15

    This topic is such a bore. If you don’t want to fulfill distributional requirements, go somewhere else. Yale is a liberal arts college — you can’t just specialize in one field.

    • River_Tam

      Some people can’t specialize in anything at all. Hiyoo

  • mmr

    The purposes of a college education are (a) to prepare you for whatever you’re doing afterward, whether it’s work or grad school and (b) to enrich your mind and allow you to explore your interests. Courses I take to fulfill distribution requirements accomplish neither of these goals, so they are completely useless to me. I’m not just talking about when humanities majors have to take math – I’m also talking about when math majors have to take literature. If you actually have no interest in a class and no use for it in your life/career, all the requirement does is breed resentment and discourage you from putting in a genuine effort. This is intellectually unhealthy.

    We pay taxes so that the government can function; we obey traffic laws so as to minimize car accidents. Although these things may be inane, there are good reasons to do them. There’s no reason to take a class completely unrelated to your interests and/or career goals, except that your school requires it for graduation. I am in favor of getting rid of distribution requirements.