Does studying the liberal arts present you with too much choice?

US universities are known for allowing students to study many different subjects, but can that much choice be a bad thing?

April 15 2019
Does studying the liberal arts present you with too much choice?

We could debate for hours about whether America truly is, as it is so often called, the land of the free. One thing I know for certain, though, is that the US model of education is considerably more liberating that the British one.

Unlike English universities, where students typically study only one or two subjects for three years, American universities allow individuals to more or less study as many subjects as they wish. Prospective students don’t apply to study history or physics, but liberal arts. In this system, students choose their classes from a large menu of offerings, with each class acting like a building block towards a degree.

I’ve studied at Yale University for 18 months now but haven’t yet picked a subject to specialise in. I don’t have to settle on my major (main subject) until the end of my second year. To graduate, I need to have taken 36 classes over four years, of which 12 will be in my major. Easy, right? Well, as you might be able to tell, not always.

Yale publishes an annual guide, colloquially referred to as the “Blue Book”, which lists all the classes that will be offered in the coming academic year. Roughly 2,000 courses are categorised into 80 potential majors, of which you have to pick only four or five to study in any given semester. After the Blue Book is released, every student spends hours poring over it, trying to devise the optimal schedule, ever hopeful of picking the best class at Yale, ever fearful of choosing the worst one.

After I open the Blue Book, I jump straight to my area of interest, the history classes. In this one subject alone, there is more choice than anyone could wish for. There are the more traditional classes, such as the History of France since 1871 and Research in Ottoman History, which satisfy specific interests.


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Then there are the broader history classes, for example Liberalism and also Spiritual but not Religious, which might allow a broader analysis across different elements of history, and even invite students to explore an area they had never considered before. “Inviting” is the best word for it, because the US liberal arts system actively encourages students to step outside of their comfort zone. Professors don’t just want their students to become experts in certain fields, but to learn of new and exciting things. The combination of intense subject specificity and broad historical analysis offers students an appreciation of historical trends that regimented English courses don’t afford.

That is, of course, if students take advantage, as I have done, of the breadth of intellectual opportunities. They are merely opportunities, not requirements, and in this fact lies the true beauty of the American educational philosophy: you can do whatever you want, even if the path you choose is intensely subject specific.

No one is bound to one subject – I don’t have to only take history classes. As long as I take at least 12 history classes throughout my time at Yale, I can use the other 24 to explore different areas. In my 18 months, I have taken classes on economics and politics and learned Italian.

Proponents of the more traditional English system might argue that liberal arts produces jacks of all trades who are masters of none. I had the same reservation when I started at Yale. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do I feel intellectually fulfilled outside my study of history, I’ve found that the other subjects I’ve studied have bolstered it.

In one history class, I learned about the Wall Street Crash; after taking a class in economics, I better understood its intricate causes. In another history class, I learned about Dante, and in an Italian class I read the Divine Comedy in its original language. All areas of study support each other in one way or another. It’s incumbent on individual students to figure out how, rather than professors alone, to enforce their own course structure and make their own connections.

That said, it’s not all smooth sailing. When the Blue Book is released online, it’s extremely nerve-racking. It’s hard to tell which classes are the best ones to take. Choosing only 0.2 per cent of the available classes leaves a lot of stones unturned, and at worst you could be stuck in a terrible class for months.

But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the “Blue-booking” process, it is that all the classes at Yale are engaging in some way, and you can make of them what you will. I’ve never stumbled across a bad class, and the fear of doing so seems largely unfounded. If it does happen, however, there’s always a new semester on the horizon and a new chance to explore the 2,000 classes all over again.

Read more: Best liberal arts colleges in the United States

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