Last week, the University’s premier magazine of conservative thought, The Princeton Tory, posted a list (now retracted) of the sort that has become an unfortunate fixture of American conservative publications: a list of worthless college courses. Sprouting up everywhere from Conservapedia to Business Insider, the idea that American higher education has been overrun by a rash of useless classes has dug its way into the American consciousness. The alleged culprits for this epidemic range from lazy students to liberal professors bringing their skewed views of the world into the classroom, but the underlying message in dismissing so many courses offhand is that college education should fit strict ideals of usefulness in “the real world.” Of course, I cannot defend every course, professor or college attacked in such an article on the basis of their own merits, but creating a category of “useless” courses we are simply uncomfortable with is dangerous and threatens both the integrity and the utility of education.
As the Tory post itself reminds us, “a liberal arts education is meant to challenge students’ perspectives, introduce them to new ideas, and prepare participants for successful careers in the 21st century.” How better to challenge perspectives and introduce new ideas than by examining, if not taking, courses which seem at first blush tangential and offbeat? Mocking a course based solely upon a cursory and closed-minded reading of its online description represents a disturbing intellectual laziness. The mentality that it builds is worse — if we as students are to avoid exposing ourselves to new ideas because they challenge our perception of which ideas are connected, we are actively opposing the critical thinking and consideration that make a liberal arts education valuable.
Worse is that so many such articles obviously set out to find strange and “useless” courses, and, in doing so, approach the curricula with a closed mind — reading to mock rather than to learn. If the reaction to reading about HIS 544: The Environmental History of Medieval Europe is to crack jokes about Al Gore’s “time machine device” and ignore the ideas at hand, we have little hope of learning from medieval deforestation, land use and natural resource exploitation — and perhaps of learning something about these struggles in our own time. A student who desires only to learn about what he or she already knows about can hardly be called a student at all — these classes are essential to our freedom to learn.
But how do such classes prepare students for careers? A better question is how can we expect to prepare for careers in the 21st century without challenging our beliefs or making connections between seemingly disjoint ideas? It is all well and good to train future financiers, politicians and scientists in finance, politics or science, but the well-established curricula for these vocations represent the way the world is now, or more often the way the world was years to decades ago when curricula were set. To prepare us, the students, for modern careers, we need to study modern issues — issues which come from the interplay between widely divergent trends.
Consider one of the courses riffed by the Tory post, AMS 358: Electronic Literature: Lineage, Theory, and Contemporary Practice. While modern college students are indisputably aware of the interplay between social media and their life, precious few have pondered what information technology means for modern literature. Before reading the course description, I hadn’t either, except to mourn the loss of paper books. But I’m now intrigued, for e-books are still a surpassingly static medium, and literature formats which can adapt to and grow with the internet can have vastly more influence. Imagine if The Grapes of Wrath had been published in the format of The New York Times’ features “Snow Fall” or “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” which integrate new formats into in-depth analysis. Anyone who hopes to take a career in journalism, policy or literature would do well to examine the direction in which literature and media are moving, and understand the pitfalls and strengths of this way of storytelling.
Even if you, like me, are not planning a career in policy or journalism, the careers that we millennials will hold will be dependent on communication so understanding how ideas spread nowadays — whether via AMS 358 or “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” which tops Business Insider’s list — will be essential for everyone. And this goes for courses which touch on the interplay between, say, poverty and disease, or revolution and entertainment — without considering such interplays, no college can claim to educate effective leaders.
So next time you see a silly or surprising course, use it as an opportunity to question your world, not to mock or lament how ridiculous college classes are nowadays. The trend is nowhere near as worrisome and corrupting as one might think, based solely upon list articles online and offhand jokes about underwater basket weaving. Don’t succumb to the temptation to dismiss potentially world-changing ideas as trivial or ridiculous. Instead, read the description with an open mind and maybe even take the class — you just might learn something.
Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.