I came to Stanford University as a freshman incredibly undecided about my future and overwhelmed by the opportunities I was presented with. As a result, I took classes in computer science, economics, math, philosophy, biology, psychology, and political science -- all with the hope that I would stumble upon a field I wanted to pursue.
At times, I've admittedly felt behind other students. Behind those who came into college knowing exactly what they want to do. Those who have already completed half of their major requirements and who already have a specified goal to work toward. Those who seem to have their lives figured out.
But at other times, I feel like I've approached college in exactly the right way.
Surprisingly, it was Mark Zuckerberg (who visited my introductory Computer Science class last fall) who made me realize the importance of having a broad exposure to different disciplines. When asked what he would have done if he hadn't pursued computer science, Zuckerberg laughed and said, "I actually know the answer to that. I would have pursued classics."
That was unexpected. Why would a programming prodigy like Zuckerberg be interested in something as seemingly different as classics? But he explained his rationale, noting that the rigorous analysis needed to deconstruct Latin texts mirrored the thorough scrutiny needed to debug code, and that it was that kind of mindset that appealed to him the most.
From Zuckerberg's visit, I realized something: that subjects aren't distinct from one another, but are rather inextricably linked together, and that the skills developed through analyzing classic works can be applied to something as seemingly different as computer science. At their core, all academic subjects, from English to political science to math, are about applying logic and reasoning to tackle problems -- whether through interpreting dense literature, studying state interactions, or solving abstract equations. In philosophy, I learned about the importance of tempering possibility with necessity and balancing a sense of infinitude with earthly responsibilities. In economics, I learned about opportunity costs and game theory, concepts I now use to make everyday decisions. And in computer science, I learned how to critically challenge my logical thinking and formulate more elegant ways of analytic thought. These subjects have all vastly altered my perception of the world, and having the chance to study them is what has been truly valuable about a college education.
Not everyone views college in this way. Many see it instead as a place to prepare for the workplace, a pre-professional incubator where we can hone specific skills to best market to employers. In his well-known article, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," William Deresiewicz spoke out against this mindset, pointing out that students listen to a few speeches during college urging them to ask the big questions, yet "spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions -- specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students."
This specialization is undoubtedly valuable in the workforce, where deep knowledge in one field drives breakthroughs within that field. But society needs more than just breakthroughs in specific fields. After all, the largest issues we face -- from biological weapons to global warming to structural violence -- are not the problem of just one discipline or group of people. They're issues that all of humanity faces, and their solutions lay at the crossroads between scientific discoveries, political will, and moral determination.
How, then, can we expect to fix these issues -- which intersect with so many different fields -- when the people charged with solving them only understand one aspect of the problem?
The truth is, the solutions to our toughest problems will not be found through a narrow specialization, but rather through an interdisciplinary approach, where each field of study can provide a stepping-stone to the eventual solution. Developing well-sculpted, well-rounded individuals is thus critical, as these individuals will be the ones to integrate innovations from different fields and create smart fixes for the most pressing issues of the day.
Although some universities offer interdisciplinary majors, I don't think that students necessarily need to major in an interdisciplinary field to broaden their perspective. I understand that some students do have a strong passion for one subject and want to devote their college time to studying that subject closely. And that's fine. What I do think, though, is that students should not confine themselves to taking classes in their chosen fields, but should rather make an active effort to explore what different departments have to offer. Because ultimately, taking different kinds of classes is not only about learning the specific material, but also about opening up your mind to an entirely new way of thinking -- stimulating a fresh set of minds that can competently challenge the enormous issues that society faces.
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