Let’s put college into perspective. We spend roughly four years here at Yale. For those of us who opt not to attend graduate school, this is the last formal education that we will ever receive. The vast majority of Yalies will spend the rest of their lives working in industry. This is precisely why I’m stunned by the movement toward more “practical” or “industry-oriented” curriculums in colleges across the nation — particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Theory” has become a dirty word, and the reputations of the liberal arts colleges that espouse its virtues have been questioned. But we should reject the notion that an education without practical significance is an education not worth receiving. Let’s not turn college into vocational school.
Now, the past few years have created a pretty tough, if not cutthroat, job market. I sympathize with the idea that we need practical skills in order for our resumes stand out amidst a sea of applicants. But it is not the purpose of a college education to provide these skills.
This mentality is pervasive in computer science; there’s such a huge push for pre-professionalism in America today that one of the first questions that I’m asked by prefrosh interested in computer science is always, “What’s the startup culture like at Yale?” This is, of course, followed by, “Does Yale help you find internships in Silicon Valley?” Some students even choose to forsake college degrees, with programs such as the Thiel Fellowship helping them do it.
Colleges have picked up on this zeitgeist. The buzzwords of choice these days are “entrepreneurial” and “project-based learning.”
According to The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, Stanford University — famous for students dropping out to join startups — is now less of a university, and more of a “giant tech incubator with a football team.”
The value of a college education comes from its ability to shape how we think. Education ought to give us an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the world we live in, not necessarily land us jobs at Fortune 500 companies.
Asking the “big questions” is more than a cliché. Revolutionary ideas don’t come from learning more efficient ways to crunch numbers in Excel or figuring out how to code a Snapchat-for-dogs app. We change the world by questioning the assumptions that undergird the way we live and do business already.
Steve Jobs transformed the way we appreciate aesthetics by introducing design elements he gleaned from calligraphy classes at Reed College. Google was founded because two computer scientists realized that there was a more effective method to catalog and search Web pages than to simply filter keywords. Mark Zuckerberg used social network theory and graph theory to create a better way to interact with friends online. Theoretical knowledge enabled these companies to get started. Practical knowledge is important, but theory allows us to step back and see the big picture.
It’s more valuable to become a thinker than a worker bee — mindlessly learning how to solve problems that countless other people have solved before.
One of the most common complaints students had about CPSC 201, Introduction to Computer Science, was that we used Racket, a programming language that is all but useless in industry. I can’t count the number of times that my engineering friends have grumbled about learning something that they will “literally never use” in their lives again.
We probably won’t need half the material we pick up in our classes ever again. What will be valuable, however, is the mindset that we’ve picked up.
Now, we certainly need some practical skills — but acquiring them is not the primary purpose of a college class. This is where student organizations such as HackYale and summer internships hold a comparative advantage. We should be learning these types of skills on our own time. Let’s not waste the one time in our lives when we can learn theory without the pressure of producing deliverables.
Non-STEM majors seem to have this all figured out. These arguments are quite similar to the rationale held by many for studying the liberal arts. And there’s a good reason why. Anybody can intern at a company: Some of us did so in high school. Anybody can learn how to program or learn the ins and outs of corporate America. We have plenty of time to do that, the majority of our lifetimes, in fact. Let’s ignore our professional lives for just a moment and learn for the sake of learning. Perhaps it will even help us stumble onto the next big idea.
Shreyas Tirumala is a freshman in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.