In his recent column, “Yale is not a trade school” (Sept. 15), Matt Shaffer aptly highlights a dilemma facing Yale students today: the conflict between pursuing “useful” skills-oriented courses or “impractical” academic ones. By stating simply that Yale is “not a trade school,” though, Shaffer misses the deeper identity crisis at play (note: he never stated what Yale is). As such, his suggested solution — avoid pre-professional courses — yanks the head off a nasty weed but leaves the root strangling dear Yale.
Shaffer is right that history, economics, literature and everything else Yale has to offer should not be mere pretext for picking up writing, research and computation skills, but parts of what we believe the educated alumna and alumnus need to know to synthesize whole understandings from the scattered data of this world.
Yet the problem is not that courses focusing explicitly on teaching skills are now crowding out our beloved (but, Shaffer would have us believe) useless humanities; the problem is that many Americans believe — and Yalies are coming to believe — that nothing but isolated skills and unrelated facts can be taught. Pointing out an unseemly growth on the body of knowledge at universities, Shaffer has missed the more pressing issue of this body’s dismemberment.
The University has abdicated its responsibility to create a coherent and complete education for its students; as a result, the “uni” of university has been fractured into myriad fields and courses, nothing related and nothing required, that compete for shoppers’ enrollment. Such radical academic freedom, while it no doubt lessens the conflicts that would arise from a core curriculum, has allowed market forces and relativism to deconstruct what is worth learning into four years of escapism and credit counting. Most Yalies find their way through all right, relying on friends, relatives and Blue Book sortilege to contrive an undergraduate career; those that don’t succeed can’t complain, at least not about anything Yale did.
The answer, then, is not merely to avoid classes that impart marketable skills and knowledge, since I would argue that practical tidbits frequently infiltrate the sacred grounds of academic study. (After all, if one wishes to become an academic, isn’t all academic study pre-professional?) To purge the Blue Book of such courses entirely, if it were possible, would still leave us with the problem of incoherence while adding the burden of irrelevance. Trade schools are not the enemy, but a different type of animal. Dismissing them as “lesser” institutions does not restore the value to our own; it just makes us elitist bullies.
What we must do is counteract the detrimental effects of the market on institutions of higher learning that claim to teach the liberal arts, if Yale is one of them. This means taking a stand for those liberal arts, a shared course of study that students take because it is the best foundation for learning and life. Of course, such a step means inhibiting choice, a difficult option to sell to high school students. But let’s face it: Most high school students don’t know what they want. They are bright and talented individuals harassed by the question “What are you going to do with your life?” and they come to universities like Yale seeking the best preparation possible.
Instead of giving them that preparation, colleges today provide only temporary distraction from the haunting question, allowing customers four years of unchecked freedom and plenty of resources. This makes people happy, like children set loose in a grocery store, but providing all the food you could want does not guarantee the nutrition you need.
If Yale is going to remain valuable in today’s world, it needs more than a calorie-count diet for students to follow; it needs to provide the guidance through a complete, rigorous course of study for which students seek its hallowed halls. In order to do that, choices must be made and not simply multiplied.
I am afraid that our administrators are mired too deeply in funding and marketing Yale to take a leadership role in substantially improving the product, especially by such controversial means as imposing a core curriculum. Indeed, why change a liberal arts-flavored global research university with plenty of nearby restaurants (and a farm, if you like farming!) when it’s so sell-able, so “anything you could possibly want”? They may fear that such a disjointed smorgasbord of knowledge and activities overwhelms students and will eventually lower customer satisfaction so much that Yale loses precious alumni money along with all meaning. But the administration can continue giving boundless freedom and resources and then simply blame the students if a quality education did not result.
So be it. Until the Yale administration takes seriously its responsibility to guide the education of its students, current undergraduates will have to take up that responsibility.
I, as a recent alumna, suggest that students undertake this challenge with all due humility and consideration. Humility, because you can only learn if you accept that there are things you do not know and teachers who know more, and consideration because a balanced curriculum that prepares you for life is difficult to find, even — and especially — at a place like Yale.
It’s not an easy task, and life would be a lot easier on students if the administration took it up on their behalf, but shaping a worthy education at Yale is the only way to keep that name worth something.
Meredith Williams is a 2009 graduate of Silliman College.