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A business student’s view of the humanities

| Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On March 19, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz visited campus to discuss his book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” I read it in anticipation of the talk and discovered the articulation of many thoughts on my college experience I had held inside or only discussed with close friends.

To be frank, I am one of Deresiewicz’s “sheep.” Sheep are formed in an affluent school setting where APs, extracurriculars and college acceptances are the measures of success — an apt description of my Northern New Jersey hometown. Sheep choose vocational majors with the clearest path to a job, and see a double major as their next “gold star”— I am a Finance and Political Science double major. Sheep are conditioned to view getting a job as the primary end of college — I received a consulting job in Chicago in the fall and have yielded to the pressure of “needing” a sophomore and junior summer internship in my field.

It is therefore troubling when Deresiewicz claims that, by neglecting the humanities, sheep never really receive a college education at all. A sheep’s incentive structure has been subconsciously perverted by misguided influences and a schooling system that promotes a skewed model of achievement.

Being placed in Deresiewicz’ “flock” has spurred me to reflect on my educational track.

Coming out of high school, I did not possess a strong attachment to any particular subject that jumped out as a possible major choice. Instead, I looked towards my uncle and friends’ fathers — successful men in finance — who reassured me that finance is a great path for someone with my grades and work ethic.

After arriving at Notre Dame, I was able to enroll in business classes during my freshman year. When the good grades in those classes began to roll in and I was not particularly enamored with any other subject from my FYS, I was locked into the business track. I’ll grow to find my passion, right? My decision-making proceeded without a deep reflection on the broader questions: What does an education mean to me? What do I want to derive from these four years, intellectually?

I am not writing to say I regret my decisions. While several business classes have indeed been a chore instead of a cerebral exercise, I am very excited to begin my first real job in July. In addition, my political science major has unlocked a genuine curiosity and interest in political theory. However, I feel that Notre Dame can do a lot more to ensure that freshmen are choosing a major based on genuine personal reflection, rather than being pushed forward by their pre-college conditioning.

One suggestion, during this period of University core curriculum review, is to revamp the University Seminar and adopt a model similar to the one Deresiewicz describes at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. This school mandates a yearlong “introduction to liberal learning” seminar for freshmen. While PLS majors take several seminars like this, I believe it should be required for all freshmen — instead of allowing freshmen to retreat into a University Seminar that lies within a familiar subject or their intended major. This class would allow them to engage with foundational texts from multiple disciplines, perhaps lead them to a new subject of interest and begin to tackle the kinds of philosophical questions about life and education that college should raise.

Additionally, the Career Center and advisors can be much more proactive about educating freshmen on careers that differ from the traditional finance, accounting, consulting, law and medical paths. Money is important (it has certainly been a key factor in my decisions) and getting a job out of college seems to have increasingly moved to the forefront of the university experience for students in all majors. It is therefore vital for advisors to engage freshmen through additional programming or individual intellectual inquisition, to push them to thoroughly examine their future options and discern the type of work that they can make money in and mentally engage with.

Underclassmen should see the Career Center as a resource for developing exciting post-grad ideas and possibilities, rather than as a place that simply reinforces what they think they want to do.

Also, my belief that most incoming college students have no idea what they really want with their lives gives me pause about Mendoza’s new enrollment policy.

Students who apply to the University as intended business majors will now be notified, at acceptance, if they are “pre-approved” to enroll in Mendoza after completion of their FYS. I feel that being anointed as one of the pre-approvals at the No. 1 undergraduate business school in the country removes any chance of actually exploring the other majors or colleges that Notre Dame has to offer.

Deresiewicz writes that a college education is most valuable when it allows a student to deprogram his or her preconceived notions that form when growing up and replace them with autonomous thought and personal free choice. While Notre Dame attempts to inculcate these values more effectively than most college institutions, it can definitely do more to avoid students feeling herded.

I may be a sheep, but I hope that by becoming more aware of the influences that affect our judgment, all Notre Dame students can arrive at the type of education that best fits them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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