At Yale, choice is ubiquitous, from the Blue Book to the new fleet of ramen bars invading the dining halls. Yet choice is making us unhappy and indeed may even be getting in the way of the education we are purportedly here to obtain.
Choice is the reason underclassmen spend the first two weeks of each semester in a state of frenzied uncertainty as they juggle six or seven different selective seminars, hoping they’re admitted to at least one.
Choice is the reason well-known “gut” classes draw hundreds of students, while professors who teach more foundational (though often more difficult) courses are lucky if two dozen seats are filled on the first day.
Choice is the reason the News publishes an unending string of first-year columns on “extracurricular bazaar blues.” Choice is also the reason you’re already thinking about abandoning this article in favor of another.
The ability to choose — within the context of a college education, and certainly on the scale which Yale deems necessary — is counterproductive both psychologically and academically.
While students should be expected to make their own decisions, without sufficient faculty oversight at the initial course-selection stage, many students often lack the tools to discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is not. Choice is only as valuable as the choices we make, freedom only as good as what we are free to do.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz articulated the predicament of the average Yalie in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice.” Most people, given the option, would prefer more choice over less. But research suggests that choice can make us less happy in the long run. We mourn missed opportunities, worry about the uncertainty of outcomes and can never satiate our desire for even more choices.
Though Yale provides more choices than most colleges in the world — and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy — its students do not appear to be benefiting from it. A surfeit of academic options is leaving students focused on the process of selection rather than on the class content.
The freedom to choose is deeply ingrained in the culture of Yale, and in some respects, that’s a good thing. Still, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, reducing the number of campus spaces in which life is simple and straightforward.
Shopping period is a prime example of a space that could benefit from less choice. In 2012 a faculty committee produced a report which found that both faculty and students experience stress during shopping period because of the uncertainty it brings. Undergraduates, unsure of their status in selective seminars, often struggled under the larger workload.
Meanwhile, faculty members noted how a fluctuating group of students can slow the development of an authentic classroom discussion environment. Rather than engaging with their peers, students tended to show off to the professor in the first few days of class, presumably in the hope that doing so would increase their odds of getting in.
I’m not proposing we abolish shopping period. Still, we can ease the burden of choice without diminishing the quality of Yale classes, and we can help students make more realistic and intelligent shopping-period decisions without curbing the spirit of academic exploration. There exists a happy balance between restraint and freedom, and I believe Yale can find it.
A first step would see Yale offering greater faculty guidance in the semester prior to each shopping period so that students would know beforehand which courses they’d be attending and make fewer last-minute schedule changes. Another idea would be to hire more faculty members, which would allow Yale to offer multiple sections of high-demand seminars.
However, the issue runs deeper than earlier preregistration deadlines or seminar waitlists. For in our collective rush to choose, we forgo the sort of deep reflection that leads to prudent academic decisions.
We should honor, where we can, our collective preoccupation with choice. But let us also recognize how often, among those who proclaim it most vociferously, it often goes with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction and anxiety.
Less choice does not necessarily mean less freedom. In fact, within the context of a college education it can mean freedom from choice.
Finnegan Schick is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .