When I look back at my four years at Yale, I see just one common theme: utter randomness. Some of my semesters have been defined by a flurry of STEM courses and a Model UN conference, while others have been characterized by global affairs seminars and a dance team. I have had a liberal arts experience that is so classic that it feels ordinary and perhaps infallible.
But as I approach graduation, it is hard to piece it all together. I am unsure if I am leaving with a common body of knowledge or if I can use an overarching theme to describe my experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it says something about the short-term mindset that defines Yale.
Like a public company dogged by its shareholders to produce quarterly rather than long-term results, students each semester obsess over their term-time commitments. Our Google calendar spans exactly from day one of shopping to the last day of exams. We define our decisions to go out, read an article or even do laundry in terms of ticking time bombs — T minus the weekend, T minus Thanksgiving, T minus summer break. At every step, the looming cloud is the problem set due tomorrow, the party scheduled this weekend or the arts competition to be won next week.
Having completed — sometimes ungracefully — these short-term obligations, we return next semester with a near-blank slate, a phenomenon that is as beautiful as it is unrepresentative of the real world. However, it also creates a disjointed trajectory, whereby we identify no common goals or evolving themes as we leap from one term to another.
This occurs partly because Yale’s semesters are such a mish-mash. Classes change every semester — some like “Cold War” disappear, others like “Psychology and the Good Life” explosively appear, others like “Introductory Microeconomics” change professors and, thus, the experience. During this time, our “shareholders” expect perfect results in their domains, without appreciating that we are part of many others. Professors expect us to make time for extra class sessions, parents expect us to take that sixth quantitative reasoning credit and classmates expect us to pull our weight in term projects.
At the same time, our shortsightedness also happens due to our own priorities — a momentous sports season, recruiting time or a new personal relationship — that throw off our sense of time and space from the last semester.
So what would a long-term view of the Yale experience look like? First, a long-term view doesn’t preclude experimentation and stumbling in the first few semesters across departments and student groups. However, a long-term view necessarily includes big-picture objectives and game plans to achieve them.
These aren’t the “get a summer internship” or “learn some Python” kinds of goals. Instead, a goal could be “appreciate the emerging area of environmental economics,” and commit to taking the advanced green economics seminar, work under Yale’s foremost environmental economist, take a spring trip to an at-risk coastal country and write one seminal paper for on- and off-campus long-form publications. Another could be “understand the business of struggling companies,” and take an economics class on debt, take a School of Management class on competitive strategy, audit a Yale Law class on bankruptcy and join a student group that serves challenged New Haven enterprises. These goals are daunting and cannot be achieved in the short term, but it is exactly their long-term nature that makes them so valuable. Some of us already do this. Some of us don’t. Most of us don’t do it enough.
An interesting comparison is the nonliberal arts U.K. education system, which backloads all of its exams and work to the end of a year and has minimal short-term assignments. This is undoubtedly extreme, but it creates valuable incentives to challenge oneself in the short term and catch up with time if necessary. At the same time, my U.K. peers hold at least a yearlong view of their academic careers rather than a weekly view at any one point in time.
This requires a mental paradigm shift by our shareholders, who must accept and allow that long-term goals sometimes supersede short-term pressures. It also requires a shift among our advisors: the FroCos, DUS’s and Deans who must encourage a bigger-picture view of the Yale trajectory. Too many advisors take the “feel free to experiment” and “it is never too late” approach. My view is not that you decide your four years of classes in first-year fall, but that if you get into the long-term mindset early, you might leave Yale more satisfied.
Many years ago, when Amazon.com Inc. was making losses every quarter, its shareholders balked at poor short-term results. After 10 years of long-term thinking and investment, the company can look back at the past few years with confidence and clarity. With the right worldview, hopefully Yalies can do the same after their four years.
Arvin Anoop is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .