In a recent editorial, the News opposed the Yale College Council’s call for academic minors, arguing that minors would be at odds with Yale’s liberal arts tradition (“News’ View: Yale should not add minors,” Feb. 5). Specifically, the News contended that minors would “allow and encourage Elis … to rack up additional resume items … at the cost of a truly diverse, liberal education.”
I write to suggest that the News’ piece, while well-intentioned, failed to carefully consider the evidence and data put forth by the YCC’s recent report on the issue. If anything, the Council’s work has shown that the institution of academic minors would in no way diminish Yale’s “truly diverse, liberal education.”
Implied in the News’ argument was the suggestion that academic depth is to be pursued exclusively through the major, and that academic breadth is to be fulfilled separately via non-major courses of study. While this logic is alluring in its simplicity, such rigid compartmentalization glosses over the potential to improve both depth and breadth within the Yale College curriculum.
More specifically, while there should be depth in major-oriented studies and breadth in non-major academic pursuits, both depth and breadth should be stressed concurrently within the two spheres of study. As shown by the increasingly diverse range of course offerings within majors, and by the Committee on Yale College Education’s now-implemented recommendation in 2003 to add more pedagogical structure to the distributional requirements, there is a strong precedent and need for both elements of the liberal arts to be emphasized in tandem.
That said, under this interpretation of the liberal arts, the status quo and its single concentration system appear not nearly as “sacrosanct” as the News dogmatically suggested.
For starters, the faculty’s efforts to introduce structured depth outside the majors have largely failed to produce more in-depth study. That is, the CYCE’s revamped distributional requirements — conceptualized to serve as catalytic “starting points” for further academic pursuits — serve more often than not as end goals, rarely motivating students to engage in serious study outside of their major-oriented pursuits.
Furthermore, there unquestionably still exists a need for diversity within and among majors. Simultaneously, the current system — by offering no alternative to majoring — also pigeonholes students with more than one serious academic interest into pursuing two majors, thereby severely handicapping their academic freedom.
Due to an increasingly competitive job market, students are electing, now more than ever, to major in fields commonly perceived as more “practical” and “career-oriented.” This trend has manifested itself most clearly in recent drops in humanities, languages and arts course enrollment, were coupled with simultaneous increases in social science enrollment. As reported by the News last April, humanities majors made up 37 percent of all students last year, down from about 50 percent in 1986. As the same article also reported, social sciences majors comprised 35 percent of all students last year, up from 25 percent in 1986.
Needless to say, the aforementioned problems in depth, breadth and pre-professionalism illustrate the dire need for change. Fortunately, the introduction of academic minors would likely improve undergraduate education at Yale, particularly by strengthening the University’s commitment to the liberal arts.
Among other benefits, minors would add much-needed depth to students’ non-major academic engagements by incentivizing work beyond that currently mandated by the distributional requirements. While minors may not “teach a student the life of an academic,” as the News wrote of majors, the additional time spent studying the particulars of a discipline via a minor would be more beneficial to a student’s education — and more in line with the liberal arts curriculum — than what the CYCE referred to as the “incoherent, dilettantish smattering” of courses currently pursued by students outside their majors.
Minors would also promote much-needed breadth by affording double-majoring students the opportunity to pursue a major and a minor. Furthermore, they would increase the overall interdisciplinarity of Yale’s academic offerings. More specifically, they would likely encourage the creation of formal courses of study in some of the most cutting-edge and interdisciplinary fields. At Princeton, for example, Sustainable Energy and Urban Studies — programs that might have never surfaced as majors — were recently unveiled in the form of the school’s functional equivalent to academic minors.
Minors would also advance the mitigation of pre-professional influence on academic decision-making by encouraging students currently pursuing more “practical” disciplines to either minor in a less career-oriented discipline or minor in the original “practical” discipline and major in a less career-oriented one. In both scenarios, minors would engender a campus culture less fixated on, as the News wrote, “rack[ing] up additional resume items.”
Given that the humanities, languages and arts are commonly perceived as less career-oriented, they stand to benefit from a decrease in the influence of post-graduation plans on students’ curricular decision-making. And, because many of the departments perceived as more practical suffer the largest burdens in terms of student demand for faculty resources, minors would aid them as well by alleviating their current strains.
At Harvard, which established “secondary fields” (the school’s equivalent of academic minors) in 2006, such benefits have been clearly evinced in practice. Emily Neill, the undergraduate program administrator of Harvard’s Economics Department, recently wrote to the YCC in an e-mail, “Secondary fields have been a godsend to us … Having the secondary field … has enabled countless students to have Econ on their transcripts while freeing them up to pursue other interests.”
Ultimately, the chief cause of the status quo’s shortcomings is a critical disconnect between the College’s academic options — and associated incentive structures — and students’ motivations and goals. The introduction of academic minors would reorient the existing incentive structures and allow students to strike a happy medium between improving their job prospects and upholding the integrity of the liberal arts.
Of course, minors ought to be implemented with prudence, ideally with limitations on their use. At Harvard, students may receive credit for only one secondary field. Such limitations have proven thus far successful at preventing the “rack[ing] up” of credentials anticipated by the News.
Implementation issues aside, we need only look to Harvard’s administration for further reassurance against the possibility of over-specialization and over-achievement. Harvard’s associate dean of undergraduate education, Stephanie Kenen, wrote in an e-mail to the YCC, “We are encouraged that sophomores are not declaring secondary fields at their earliest opportunity. This means that they are not feeling the pressure to do this immediately, and are taking their time to make their choices and decide if it is the right choice for them.”
The News’ editorial noted that the roots of the single concentration system can be traced to Harvard, which introduced majors in 1910. The rest of the Ivy League and colleges across the country later adopted the same system. But while the News correctly identified the historical foundations of the present system, it overlooked one essential fact: Harvard and all but one of Yale’s fellow Ivy League institutions — Brown is the other exception — have since introduced academic minors in some form.
It bears now mentioning that no intimate cohort of students — whether serving on student government or writing for an undergraduate newspaper — can fully examine all the subtleties and nuances of the issue at hand, particularly those pertaining to curricular review and faculty development. Nonetheless, the inadequacies of the status quo are becoming ever more alarming and ever more difficult to ignore. One can only hope the current student dialogue on minors will serve a function similar to that of the ideally employed distributional requirements: as “starting points” for substantive inquiry.
To fail to engage in such discussion — indeed, to fail to seriously consider the potential for academic minors to lessen the malaises of the status quo — would be, in the News’ own words, “at the cost of a truly diverse, liberal education.”
Richard Tao is a junior in Silliman College and the president of the Yale College Council.