SALHUT: Fighting obedience with ideas

The great success of Yale has been that it “produces leaders,” whether in education, politics, business, law, medicine or any other field. What did some of these leaders — Stephen Schwarzman, Bill Clinton and Samuel Johnson — all have in common during their time at Yale? They didn’t care.

A popular college seminar entitled “Great Big Ideas” strikes the perfect balance between asking us to care and not care. In the seminar, we are taught to care about some of the world’s most important ideas and not to worry about voicing our opinions. Adam Glick ’82, our esteemed professor, questions every tenet of our beliefs, forcing us to break out of our shell of obedience. Though it has been announced that “Great Big Ideas” will not be taught for the next two semesters, the class must continue to be offered at Yale.

Since the day we arrive on campus, we are taught obedience: from meeting with our freshman counselors to eating at certain times. Yet, at many of our peer colleges, students seem more likely to take risks, while caring less about academic requirements or what classes you have to take to get into ethics, politics, and economics.

As a consequence of this obedience, many of us Yalies feel an urge to go to every event with a celebrity, study until we physically can’t for every midterm, apply for selective programs left and right and attend the information sessions of every major consulting firm. The competition for the collection of trophies and awards began the second we walked onto campus, and Yalies I know find themselves often unable to break out of it.

The genius of “Great Big Ideas” is its ability to push brilliant students to break out of their shells of obedience and shine the way they are supposed to. While there is no question that Yale has some of the world’s brightest students, getting good grades requires more obedience than any other task: writing assigned papers, taking exams written by others, doing mind-numbing problem sets. “Great Big Ideas” is a course that allows these students to apply their brilliance to their own personal advancement, and not the fulfillment of course requirements.

Part of the brilliance of people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg is that they too didn’t care about requirements and grades. Rather than learn from the obedience they were taught in our higher education system, they pushed back. They didn’t care about rules, regulations, norms or expectations; they cared about fighting for something they care about.

At Yale, just about every class teaches the obedience I resent, with the exception being “Great Big Ideas.” By teaching us how to defend our beliefs and passions in the face of staunch opposition from a professor who is seemingly all-knowing, “Great Big Ideas” is a larger asset to Yale than any course or program I can think of.

Perhaps I have some bias as a student in the seminar, but after three months I’ve learned not just how to think more efficiently or about various topics that make the world turn, but I now understand the importance of not following rules, and of questioning the norms that we live by. Rather than nod his head in agreement at something we say and think silently to himself how much he is going to deduct from our participation grade for being wrong, our professor shot down our ideas with alternatives that exposed us to almost infinite perspectives.

A few weeks ago, I learned that “Great Big Ideas” will be going on a hiatus until the spring of 2014, for technicalities that are beyond my knowledge. While many mourn the loss of a great University president, the disappearance of “Great Big Ideas” is an equal loss to this institution — a university that desperately needs a class that challenges traditionally obedient students to argue rather than agree.

Rather than dissociate ourselves from “Great Big Ideas,” we should embrace it. The same way Yale emphasizes Directed Studies and Perspectives on Science and Engineering for freshmen, our University should give students an opportunity to learn how to think independently and support their arguments in person, not from behind a computer screen.

 

Mohammad Salhut is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at mohammad.salhut@yale.edu .

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