As afternoons darken and we wrap our scarves tighter around our throats, we start thinking about the future. First years, bless their hearts, wonder about their majors while sophomores think ahead, settling into a course of study. Juniors vie for flashy corporate internships while seniors hammer away at their theses with one foot already out the door. It’s a time when we remember that Yale is preparation, a place that supposedly molds us into whatever our future selves may be.
But to a large extent, only supposedly. Although some of Yale’s intellectual infrastructure lends itself to developing the liberal arts’ “learn how to think” mentality, the breakdown of coursework could use some re-examination. We roughly operate in a trifurcated system — one-third of our classes are our major, one-third are distributional requirements and one-third are “other,” exploratory classes. This system atomizes and misdirects our liberal arts development away from developing a methodology of thought. To save the liberal arts, Yale should consider implementing minors to encourage more targeted exploration and assuage diffuse concerns about careers after college.
Let’s start with “learn how to think.” In the liberal arts, the mythologized free-wheeling undergraduate picks up a few classes in German expressionism, development economics or chemistry and graduates with a degree in constructive exploration. It’s the Brown stereotype, more or less. In this image, the “other exploratory classes” third are the stuff of thought development, the locus of the liberal arts. That’s hypothetically where we are our most uninhibited and — by that metric — our most intellectual.
This is a mistake. Valuing exploratory courses over the intellectual framework of a major is a misplaced understanding of what “learning how to think” actually means. Our majors demand a coherent intellectual framework that we develop in our coursework and carry for the rest of our lives. As a history major, I now approach almost every conversation — social, philosophical, political — as a historian, using concrete historical skepticism to couch my claims. My senior friends in literature, psychology and physics say the same thing; that coursework teaches a specific problem-solving thought process transferrable across subjects. Our majors are the locus of our liberal arts education, not the few misplaced parcels of knowledge we acquire in our “other third” classes.
With the ability to minor in a secondary interest, we’d be able to buttress the intellectual approach developed through our major with a new, secondary way of thinking through and about the world around us. If we treated our exploratory “other classes” as ways to develop another intellectual system, we’d be much closer to fulfilling the liberal arts objective. It would offer us a chance to peek into two different disciplines and consider the different ways to approach the same questions. And in fact, many of us already do “minor” in our secondary interest — taking six or so classes in another discipline by the time we graduate. Doing so with coherence and intention would frame that secondary interest as another way to think. And that would be really useful.
On the other side of the liberal arts question is the career question, one that looms large with every passing month. When jobs ask for “quantitative skills,” I — along with my questionably employable humanities bedfellows — feel the tiniest twinge of regret. My stumble through microeconomics hardly amounts to much, and I wish there were a more practical way to keep my quantitative options more open. Many students concerned with employability pick pragmatic majors and save the things they love for exterior exploration.
Minors would be a good way to assuage that career concern. With a minor option, more students would feel comfortable majoring in disciplines they love if they could minor in something more corporate. These would be the “dental insurance disciplines” like engineering, computer science or economics, disciplines whose names and skill sets slide easily into well-paying, stable jobs. Although the career concern is mostly a myth, it holds sway in the Yale imaginary.
The imagined security of a minor would encourage more students to parcel out their academic and corporate reflexes and thus explore with a little more intention and a little more stability. Choosing the humanities would feel safer if students knew they could buttress the coursework they love with “dental insurance” coursework they could put on their resume. And choosing STEM fields would not feel limiting because students could pursue auxiliary interests further down Science Hill. Either way, students could present a more professional package to a future employer, one that offers more named nuance in academic distribution.
And as thinkers, students could develop different methodological frameworks in tandem, learning to consider problems in complementary ways. We’d be more intentional about learning how to think, and also much calmer about the ramifications of our academic choices. It’s a minor request, sure, but it’s certainly worth considering.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .