A university is supposed to teach its students to be educated citizens, to prepare them to participate among the world’s leading minds. There’s a problem, though. Universities create new fields of study without expanding the breadth of undergraduate education in turn. Students may be very well versed in one field, but the typical undergraduate’s general knowledge can be surprisingly slim.
Universities used to require that all students learn virtually the same things. In 1828, Yale published a “Report on the Course of Instruction.” The curriculum ranged from Homer to Euclid to Horace. Seniors read contemporary theologian William Paley. Universities around the country emulated Yale.
To be sure, such a course of study would not suffice today. Now undergraduates narrow their studies so dramatically that one could quite easily graduate without ever reading a word of Homer or Shakespeare, learning calculus, or both. One must study broadly, not just to be well-rounded, but also to have a real presence in any corner of the thinking world. Disciplines interact. Darwin and Heisenberg exploded the boundaries of literature nearly as much as Milton and Wordsworth. To understand one’s world, everyone must have at least some knowledge of recent scientific advances. Science means nothing out of its social context, so a chemist should study history, politics and literature if his work is to be anything more than an intellectual game.
After college, specialization is required. But here, for four years, we find an opportunity to explore. Distributional requirements are not enough. One can very easily take Ichthyology and never learn the slightest thing about the sciences that play a major role in the world; avoiding any history or English class is still easier.
Nor is it enough to endow students with skills, as Yale’s skills requirements suggest. In fact, skills, at least for these four years, should be frowned upon. Those can come later. Although I briefly considered applying for Yale’s Teacher Preparation program, I was happy to see it disbanded. So, too, do I object to majors in engineering and art. The undergraduate years should not be the time for pre-professional studies of any kind.
Considering the pathetic quality of American high schools at large, it is essential that college students study widely. More Americans than ever are going to college, so high schools are no longer the final stage of schooling for as many students. And the process of growing up has been prolonged. All these are reasons why college students should slow down, hold back — just for a little longer — their very specific curiosity, and work towards a grounding that will later underpin those specialized studies.
Although I was shocked to realize just how onerous a major is — is this really the liberal arts education I was promised? — I’ll grant that the idea of a major is not going away. Students will know one chosen field more deeply than any other. But there should be more room for the generalist — and perhaps everyone should be a bit more of a generalist.
The problem isn’t a lack of curiosity or an estrangement of today’s youth; in fact, it’s just the opposite. We are so eager to play a significant role, to meet the expectations of our elders and ourselves, that we fail to build up the necessary foundation. We need administrators, parents and teachers to force us to slow down and learn what we may think is beneath us.
As it did in 1828, Yale should take the lead to reform undergraduate curricula. We should have content requirements. Yale could require students take a certain number of survey courses in history, literature, and some sort of science or math.
I took a class in high school called Great Ideas in Mathematics. It was no gut, but the class focused on the beauty and importance of math throughout history. That class instilled in me a lifelong passion for math — infinitely more than Yale’s Math 120, which proved the subject can also be tedious and boring. With rigorous, broad classes like Great Ideas in all disciplines, Yale would teach its students to feast on ideas of every flavor.
So bring on the symphonies, the wine tastings, the lectures on Freud. By graduation, every student should be able to write her own top ten list of important moments, people, or works in every vital field of human endeavor. Seek truth and beauty in any form. Think and learn for sheer pleasure, rather than a culturally-imposed longing to improve the world. Drown yourself in the best of the past. Then, in a few years, after you’ve forgotten your passion for biomedical engineering or Foucault in the ecstasy of Plato or Newton, you can rediscover those esoteric interests with an idea of what they really mean. Only then will you be an educated person, ready to participate in a universe of men.
Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.