Great Big Ideas is a class with an ambitious goal, and given its title and its slogan — “a mile wide and an inch deep” — it makes little pretense about it. Each week during the two-hour seminar, led by Adam Glick ’82, the founder of the company that runs the class, and Provost Peter Salovey, we attack a different discipline. Not discuss, but attack — launching a verbal assault on core ideas of the subject. Topics range from physics to linguistics to art, culminating in a final discussion (appropriately) of education.
There is no expert around during the class discussion to provide a final word (except, of course, for psychology, courtesy of Salovey). Before class, students watch an hour-long video lecture by an expert in the field and do some basic readings, enough to give us a sense of the big questions and ideas of the subject. Each seminar leaves us with more questions than answers, which is what any good class does.
Some faculty have complained that this class is not worthy to be included in the Yale curriculum. What could Mr. Glick, an investor without a Ph.D. (gasp!), teach students in 12 weeks without a clear, coherent focus?
To begin this question with the word “what” demonstrates part of the problem. Yale has become so focused on content, research and prestige that we constantly forget it is the act of learning that has brought us all here. A better-formed question would ask how. Glick makes teaching and learning his main priority. Returning to Yale’s original mission of educating minds, not serving as a beacon to attract celebrity professors, this class shifts the university’s focus from research to teaching. In this class, education is once again viewed as an end in and of itself.
At some point, Yale subscribed to the same misguided paradigm as its academic rivals: the expert model. The expert model posits that the best person to teach is the person who knows most about the subject. So what? This model sacrifices the values that a liberal arts university like Yale should stand for — academic exploration and integrated learning across a variety of disciplines.
Put simply, a Yale education has become too narrow — with 12 to 14 of our courses devoted to a major and another third devoted to distributional requirements, a mere 12 classes are left for true academic exploration. Great Big Ideas exposed students to material they would have never imagined studying. Through a breadth-to-depth education model, Big Ideas provides a forum to both discuss the crucial topics that might not necessitate more than two hours of direct learning while also piquing enough interest in a discipline that a student might feel inclined to delve deeper into an area he or she normally would not be interested in. The latter should be especially attractive to Yale, given the fact that the majority of its student body chooses to major in just five fields.
Taking this class has helped me develop skills applicable to a variety of post-Yale occupations. The class is an exercise in diving headfirst into a subject I’ve never seen before, and practice makes perfect. I have learned to write concisely, to articulate my thoughts in a timely manner, to challenge ideas and to defend ideas, even working with imperfect knowledge. Learning to ask the questions that will allow me to orient myself in an unfamiliar environment is a crucial skill. All of this is an impressive feat for a single semester.
From the time we enter this campus, Yalies are reminded that we have an obligation to lead the world in whatever we choose to do. It is time we start asking the same from our institution. The administration’s decision to permit the Great Big Ideas course illustrates the risk the university was willing to take to defend the values of a liberal arts education. Hopefully, the rest of Yale will pick up where Great Big Ideas leaves off.
Keith Washington is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.