Do Headhunters Dream of Electric Employees?

I was looking for news and articles on education, and found a recent New York Times article by David Shimer.  I was at a loss for new things to think about, and saw a tantalizing article, titled: “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.”  I must admit the first thing it made me think of was the course my brother took at the University of Virginia on Dracula.  He wrote his final paper about the cereal, Count Chocula—one of our favorites growing up—and got an A.

There is a history of dubious courses at American colleges, for example (click on the title for a link):

There are more than the three listed above.  The one that is perhaps the most innocuous sounding will give you credits in Kinesiology.  Perhaps some of the titles are mere provocation to illicit more enrollees, because professors do want to draw students to their courses after all.

When I read the New York Times article, I was expecting it to be a tongue-in-cheek piece about another “fluffy” class in one of America’s most prestigious colleges.  There were shades of those leanings, but it did also talk about the professor’s impetus behind creating the course.  And, for starters, the article title is disingenuous—the actual course title is: Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life.  There were some students interviewed who saw it as an “easy A,” while there were others who felt that the actual work of knowing the good life had been denied them because of all the scrabbling to get to the top (for example, the hard work of making it into Yale).  I will let the quiet dilemma of a Yale student learning how to live the good life lie alongside any and all assumptions of how a Yale education may connect to the good life.  Perhaps I’ll save that train of thought for another time.

Instead, this article has me thinking about the role that a humanities education (the “fluffy” stuff, as TIME’s Brad Tuttle accused the Washington Post of categorizing it) is projected to play as we barrel into a future where as venture capitalist, Scott Hartley writes, “The main problem is that [exclusively STEM-focused education] encourages students to approach their education vocationally—to think just in terms of the jobs they’re preparing for” (qtd in HBR).  This in a day when many claim that a great deal of the jobs our students will hold haven’t been invented yet (see BBC link for more).

So that’s the difference, we’ve all heard that traditional, staid schooling is based on an outmoded factory-model of interchangeable parts—as if we were building robots.  But, that’s the rub, we now have real robots, we don’t need to train our students to become robots too.  Rather, what the world needs now is something human to complement the mechanized societies our cultures are creating.  What is more human than play?  What is more human than hopefulness and a desire for happiness?

So in looking at these courses, yes, some of them are for the “easy A” or are what my dad once called my math class in college—“math for poets.” But, as my wife commented as she read my first paragraph, “You know, a course is what you make of it.”  And when one is in a course where there is the freedom to stretch one’s mind and jump to conclusions, that is when there is growth.  It may not be toward creating the next killer app, or developing some major breakthrough the world has been waiting for, but if the person behind those processes understands a little more about themselves and the way they think and feel, well, that is human progress.