Every college course has value, but I question how much of what I am learning will ever appear outside of the classroom.
As an economics major, understanding the topics presented in President Bill Clinton’s keynote address warranted the value of the economics courses I have taken at UR. Whether or not students have their own opinions about the matters Clinton brought up is one story, but the more important one is whether students even knew what the hell he was talking about at all.
When Clinton breezed over the dollarization in Ecuador, it’s probable that listeners had no idea what dollarization is. Even having taken a course on this topic in Ecuador, I still cannot explain every effect of dollarization, but I know it is the switch to U.S. currency, and I am able to understand its use in Clinton’s speech.
The definition of a zero-sum game came up as well, and those who have taken “game theory” and other economics courses can better comprehend the topic just because they have heard the terminology before. Likewise, students who have taken “contemporary Spanish-American prose” might latch on to UR President Joel Seligman and Clinton’s discussion of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and students enrolled in “musical style and genre” might have recognized that Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” was playing right before the keynote address began.
I wonder, though, when the day will come that I hear about the primary versus dual form and the certificate of optimality outside of my “linear optimization” course. These topics certainly hold merit within the context of mathematics, and understanding their implications is crucial in pursuing a career in mathematics. However, it is unlikely that I will ever come across that terminology again once the semester passes.
Other courses that I have not taken — nor do I plan to take — demonstrate the same comparative values. Students will likely come across discussions of mental illness without electing psychology as their major, so I am sure that non-psychology majors would benefit from taking “abnormal psychology.” On the contrary, unless students want to know how Mario Kart actually functions so that they can create such a game themselves, they may not encounter real-world benefits from enrolling in “video game programming.”
Rochester’s curriculum allows students to avoid at all costs the classes they have zero interest in, but at the same time, students are required to complete at least a cluster in the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences. Maybe this is the best of both worlds—forcing students to specialize in what actually interests them while still going deeper into other areas. Or, maybe UR is missing out on an opportunity to really push the well-roundedness of students.
Personally, I have intentionally avoided the history department. I hate history. It does not thrill me in any way. But let me tell you, I feel pretty stupid when I cannot tell you whether “We the People of the United States” is the opening sentence of the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
If asked whether or not I am glad to have avoided history classes, my answer would be “yes.” Yet, if asked whether or not I wished I knew more about history, my answer would absolutely still be “yes.” As students who have access to a wide array of courses amidst an exceptionally free curriculum, we should be more open-minded about what will actually allow us to develop our knowledge base without too much concern about perfecting our skill sets.
The depth of a major goes a long way in the professional world, but the breadth of information students come into contact with is just as important in everyday life. Every course has the potential to be enriching and fulfilling in one way or another, but, after leaving an academic setting, exposure to the courses that offer material far more likely to show up again and again is what will help students better understand all aspects of the world around them, regardless of a given degree or career path.
Seligman is a member of the class of 2012.