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Op Eds

Take a Useless Class

By Garrett M. Lam

It’s the beginning of logic class and my professor asks us a riddle: You visit an island where each person is either a knight, who always tells the truth, or a knave, who always lies. You find two islanders, Alfred and Clara, and Clara says, “If I’m a knight, then Alfred is too.” What are they? While the answer (they’re both knights) is not immediately clear to me, one thing is: When I end up getting a job, I’ll probably never need to know how to do these types of riddles. Is there a reason I should care about Clara?

It’s a common complaint. The kid who hates math wonders why he should study limits if he’ll never use them again in his life. The aspiring biologist wonders why he should waste his time understanding how Puritan culture influenced the development of New England. The aspiring historian wonders why he should waste his time learning the function of phosphofructokinase.

And it’s a complaint that relates closely to the recent decline in the humanities. In the wake of technological breakthroughs and high demand for STEM graduates, many study what will be most applicable to their future profession. Some accept this trend as a matter of prudence; in a hyper competitive, post-financial crisis job market, people look for majors that will get them appealing salaries. Others want to reverse this trend, arguing that humanities courses hone a capacity for critical thinking that can be transplanted into any profession, and moreover that people should major in what interests them rather than what puts a Maserati in the driveway.

I fall somewhere in the middle. While I’d urge people to reflect about whether money ought to be the primary pursuit in life, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to pursue a job for its income—the desire to financially support aging parents or children, for example. And given the success of many trade schools and the high demand for MIT graduates, it’s too idealistic to argue that general capacities like creativity, analytical reasoning, and critical thinking can substitute for the core technical skills developed in a STEM major, at least when it comes to post-graduate recruitment. Supplement, sure, but not replace.

That said, I fear that these students who switch to more financially practical majors are pulling the academic pendulum too far toward the technical side. It seems reasonable to fill one’s schedule with even more practical classes if one is pursuing a practical major. The physics major takes another physics course rather than a poetry class; the social studies concentrator opts out of quantum mechanics. But it’s a line of reasoning I don’t think is valid, because it reveals a diminished appreciation of the value of a liberal arts education.

Now, why should the English major take a multivariate calculus class? Simply because it would activate a part of his brain that would otherwise lie fallow. A great triumph of neuroscience is the discovery that our brains rewire according to our experience, that our neural connections are strengthened if innervated or lost if unused. My professor put this rather cynically by describing education as the process of shutting doors; as we spend more time learning certain subjects and ignoring others, we lose many neural connections, becoming locked in a narrow scope and unable to think thoughts we once could.

Taking classes from various disciplines activates different parts of our brains, counteracting this process of dispositional entrapment. Maintaining neural connections relevant to many different subjects gives us a greater capacity to synthesize and analogize information from different fields, paving the way for interdisciplinary and innovative problem solving. We shouldn’t solely focus on the depth-building classes found in a major and ignore the breadth of a general education, since breadth leads to depth—the general capacities created by studying various fields will enhance our ability to excel in any given one.

Taking diverse courses also makes us better world citizens, and frankly, more human. A consensus of world’s major scientific organizations supports adding GMOs to our diets and the majority of economists believe that rent ceilings reduce the quality and quantity of housing. These are issues for which intuitive aversion disappears with adequate knowledge. When we familiarize ourselves with the vernacular and style of thought of different subjects, we lower both opposition to progressive change found in irrational ignorance and vulnerability to pseudo-logical appeals to emotion often found in rhetoric. And we become more well-rounded people, not the products of an education machine that churns out social cogs who each do one thing efficiently.

So here’s my advice: Take a useless class. Pick one of our more than 3,500 courses. Enroll pass/fail if you have to. If you’re an economics major, try satisfying the United States in the World requirement with something other than Ec 10. We work out different muscles when we go to the gym. So too should we practice different mental exercises in the library, so we can maintain balance between our technical and general capacities.

Take a useless course, and you’ll find that it isn’t as useless as you thought—that it’s more practical to your critical thinking than many of your major’s requirements. But don’t take my word for it. Clara said so.

Garrett M. Lam ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a neurobiology concentrator in Lowell House.

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