Recollections of Yale, across the decades. Send your own memories to be considered for posting to, with subject line “For Memories.”
Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

Beyond the Blue Book (Dec. 1995)

Take the minimum number of classes,” my adviser told me. “Many people are under the mistaken impression that this [holding up the Blue Book] is your education. It is not.” Since I pride myself on Blue Book trivia and find so many classes appealing, I was surprised by his advice. But pretty soon his point became clear.

And it was this: Yale, a large research institution, is a place for people who know what their interests are, what they passionately want to study. This school provides tools for students (library, research facilities) if they’ve identified what they want to pursue.

However, if you don’t know already, you must find out what you are passionate about, explained this accomplished biologist. So take the minimum number of courses, freeing up as much time as possible for extra reading. If a lecture in class really happens to interest you, start reading a book on the topic. If it puts you to sleep, it’s not the right field. If you encounter an intriguing problem somewhere, take a book out on it. If as you start reading, your friends go out for a soccer game, and you’re not willing to blow off the game for the subject at hand, then that subject can’t be your passion, either.

Eventually, he continued, you will find a subject that draws you in. And then you will read more and more and pretty soon you will find that you can never read enough. At that point, he said, you have identified your passion and can begin to use the tools of Yale for your true education.

Now, I don’t completely agree with this advice (after all, it’s only suited to students planning a research career), but it caused me to have a realization.

I realized how far I, and most of the students I know, are from the kind of intellectual devotion that marks successful academics of the University. I’m sure that most Yale scholars would not give that advice, but I bet that every one of our professors, many of them researching problems we consider amusingly obscure, has experienced at some point what my professor described. And how I have not and that even some of the most cerebral people I know have not.

What’s more, I don’t think most of us could find or would want to find an intellectual interest so compelling that we would miss social and extracurricular activities for it. Required reading for many seems to fill up all available time (even with fewer courses), leaving no room for the independent exploration this professor claims is so crucial. Mostly, that reflects his lack of awareness of the realities of undergraduate life, but in part, it reflects our lack of touch with a truly intellectual existence.

Most of us would not call that existence healthy. Most of us think the Blue Book can indeed provide an education, and most of us for the sake of moderation would like to confine intellectual activities to our course syllabi, a few books on the side, and even some cerebral discourse at dinner. But then again, I imagine that most of us are not destined to become Yale professors.

This piece is reprinted from the October 12, 1995 Yale Daily News.

Filed under 1990s
The comment period has expired.