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On Monday, Yale will graduate yet another class of seniors. While it is fundamentally a liberal arts institution, Yale has not adequately resolved the conflict between pre-professionalism and a dedication to philosophy. It is undeniable that Yale needs to sort out its . . .

Conflict of Interests

Yevgeny Vilensky • Commencement 2003

It is a strange year for Yale graduates. With a slumping economy, many of those who will be walking down the stage at commencement on Monday have had a difficult time finding work. This was true not just in the traditional fields of finance, investment banking, and consulting; ripples were felt in the arts, publishing, and scientific research. Those not looking for work have had a difficult time getting into graduate programs, due to the soaring number of applications to graduate and professional schools caused by the scarcity of jobs. These problems faced by the class of 2003 offer to Yale an incentive to evaluate itself and its educational mission.

Many Yalies have complained that Yale gives students few marketable skills that distinguish them from other job applicants. They complain that Yale is too impractical or too focused on liberal arts to provide for those who wish to pursue careers in private industry. For example, Yale does not offer majors such as business or accounting that are available at other prestigious schools like Stanford or MIT. Additionally, there are no classes in financial reporting or communications.

On the other hand, others have accused Yale of becoming too pre-professional, rejecting the pursuit of learning for learning’s sake. Gone are the days of the mandatory study of Greek and Latin, of the rigorous pursuit of philosophy, and of the intense study of literature.

Each side in this debate is only halfright at best. Yale does not have a clear preference for either liberal arts or pre-professionalism. In fact, it seems confused which it wants to pursue and as a result, pursues each halfheartedly. This largely stems from a poor understanding of the tensions between pre-professionalism and liberal arts. In an attempt to provide both a liberal arts and a “practical” education, Yale has undermined both. One cannot chalk up one policy to Yale’s promotion of liberal arts, and another policy to its promotion of careerism. More often than not, a policy will undermine liberal arts without helping professionalism and vice versa. This results from a misunderstanding of the areas where the two educational cultures conflict.

To fully understand the problem facing Yale, one first needs to examine the history of Yale’s dedication to liberal arts and its flirtation with pre-professionalism. Many Yalies suffer from the illusion that throughout most of its history, Yale has been a haven for an unadulterated, pure liberal arts education — for learning for learning’s sake. Yet, this is far from the truth. Since the 1800’s, Yale has dedicated itself, in part, not to producing men wholly dedicated to philosophy, but rather to producing men dedicated to a particular skill or trade. Obviously, the extent to which Yale has focused on one rather than the other has varied through the years. Yet, both attitudes have been present in the Yale curriculum.

For example, in 1846, Yale had a professorship of agricultural chemistry as part of the Yale Scientific School. While instruction was limited to graduate students, the fact that such a practical skill as agriculture was taught demonstrates Yale’s commitment to creating men who could not only read Greek and Latin but who could also have successful careers in a particular field. In 1945, when most undergraduate science and engineering courses and degrees were transferred to Yale College from the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale had an undergraduate major in industrial organization. The list goes on and on, but is repeatedly ignored by those who wish to romanticize the emphasis on liberal arts and philosophy of Old Yale.

Today, Yale continues to promote an unclear mishmash of both a pre-professional and a liberal arts education. This begins with the kinds of courses offered and ends with the kind of advising offered. The Guidelines for the Distribution of Studies in the Yale College Programs of Study serve as an impressive testament to Yale’s commitment to a liberal education. The six guidelines span many different disciplines and encourage students to explore different aspects of philosophical thought in order to help them gain a closer understanding of the world.

By the same token, Yale forces students to study different areas of human thought and modes of thinking with its broad, yet precise, distributional requirements. Similarly, Yale encourages students to experiment in their freshman year with different disciplines that they may not have studied in high school in order to acquire a broad understanding and appreciation of the different aspects of the world of knowledge before choosing their major. The Freshman Handbook states: “By satisfying [the freshman distributional] requirements you learn about a variety of ideas and ways of thinking that underlie a liberal education before, or while, you are choosing your area of concentration.” In every publication and in every guideline, Yale reasserts its commitment to a liberal arts education.

Yet, Yale’s attempt to bolster appreciation for the liberal arts and sciences is inadequate due to the lack of rigor in several academic programs and to the specific course offerings in particular disciplines. The first phenomenon is evident in the lack of rigor within majors like history, political science, psychology, and economics — the most popular majors at Yale. For example, within history, a student can get a diploma without ever having taken a course on the early American republic. More astonishingly, a history major can leave Yale without ever learning about historiography and the biases of history. While there are plenty of courses in these areas, none are actually required. It is horrible that a student can leave Yale with a degree in history, while he has complete ignorance of the historical roots of the country in which he lives.

A similar phenomenon exists in the discipline of political science. A student can obtain a degree in political science without ever having taken a course in political theory. Political theory is crucial to an understanding of why the study politics is important, or even possible, and most Yalies graduate without having studied it.

Similar problems can be found in other departments like economics and psychology, in which the mathematical and philosophical underpinnings of the disciplines, respectively, are hardly tackled at all. The kinds of course offerings made by various departments for non-majors also undermine Yale’s mission of promoting the liberal arts and sciences. To be a truly educated person familiar with many different modes of thought, one needs to have a good grasp of the methods of various disciplines. This is stated explicitly in the publications Yale produces to explain its mission. But in offering a rigorous understanding of science to nonscience majors, Yale falls short by a long shot. Many of the non-major courses that Yale offers in the sciences are an utter joke or are at least considered such by most students.

A good example of this is Engineering and Applied Science 110a (Science Fiction Science Fact). The course is taken largely by non-science majors simply to fulfill the natural science requirement with as little work as possible. A great part of the course consists in reading science fiction (hence the title) rather than in learning real science or its methods. Part of the problem is that “real” science courses like Introduction to Chemistry or Introduction to Physics cannot be taken under the CR/D/Fail option, forcing students who do not want to compete with pre-medical students for grades to take such joke courses as Science Fiction Science Fact.

Courses examining scientific methodology, reasons for studying science, or the way scientific revolutions come about are unavailable to non-science majors seeking to fulfill group IV requirements. In fact, Philosophy of Science is only offered in the philosophy department, if at all. Additionally, freshman counselors advise students to avoid taking courses in different disciplines that are too hard. Thus, in seeking to fulfill distributional requirements, students end up filling their schedules with courses devoid of new material. They end up wasting their own time and utterly failing to achieve the goals that Yale had in mind when the distributional requirements were established.

Yale undermines the tenets of a liberal arts education in its very attempts to encourage students to study a variety of disciplines. Courses are either narrow in scope or ridiculously contentless. They rarely study the philosophical underpinnings of disciplines that a liberal arts education seeks to teach students. Additionally, the guidelines set for students encourage aimless academic wandering instead of a well-rounded program of study. And in this way, Yale hurts the pursuit of liberal arts, the very cornerstone of its academic mission.

Furthermore, Yale provides little or no counseling to students who are trying to figure out what careers they should consider. The best advice that UCS gives is to try different summer internships. Little is done to help students sort out the different passions they have in order to determine which is the strongest. Freshmen counselors tell students not to worry about trying to figure out which career to pursue for a while. Yet, before many know it, senior year is upon them and they have no clue as to what they want to do after leaving Yale. Yale fails to help students decide what they wish to do after graduation to philosophy. Successful preparation for a career requires a modicum of specialization in a field or at least a determined acquisition of a particular skill. On the other hand, philosophy requires breadth and an understanding the limits of each mode of thought. It requires us to see the common threads and assumptions that each way of thinking carries. And this necessitates that we understand the way the different disciplines study mankind and the world. Furthermore, there is a vastly different culture at a university strongly dedicated to philosophy and liberal arts than at a university that promotes and encourages careerism. In the former, students are using the precious time they have in college to take the first steps towards understanding the truth about the world and about themselves. In the latter, students are more concerned about making the right connections and acquiring a particular set of skills rather than pondering the most fundamental questions of life.

Yale acknowledges this conflict – that is, the conflict between specialization and general philosophical studies – and seeks to remedy it by emphasizing a balance between breadth and depth in the Yale College Programs of Study. It fails to direct students in the establishment of a proper balance, though, instead encouraging aimless study of a variety of disciplines and often lopsided studies of the specific disciplines in which students seek to specialize. Students ought to have a rigorous course of study that requires them to examine nearly every aspect of their primary discipline, yet to understand at the same time their discipline’s methods, assumptions, and limits. On the other hand, students ought to understand the methodology of many other disciplines, as well as their assumptions and limitations . This is the proper way to combine both breadth and depth into a coherent whole. Rigor in breadth helps students learn about the questions that are answerable by the various ways of thinking and rigor in depth helps students obtain the expert knowledge needed to have successful careers in industry and academia. Furthermore, Yale could do much to expand its Undergraduate Career Services. For example, they ought to hire counselors who are very competent in just one field rather than counselors who are somewhat competent in three or four fields.

Until Yale encourages this kind of rigor both in the depth of students’ studies and their breadth, then its rhetoric concerning liberal arts education will be empty and fruitless.

Yevgeny Vilensky is Editor-at-Large.


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