This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in August 2009.
It’s been twenty four years since I graduated from college, plenty of time to reflect on which of my classes truly have helped me in my life. Here is my list, dear listener, of the five courses that I recommend that everyone take in college:
All your life you will be taking photographs that will capture images of important moments and people in your life. These memories can be made even more poignant when the composition is strong and the image is crisp and clear. Many of these photographs will become treasures to you in a way that no other possession will as your life moves from one phase to another and as loved ones leave this world and these photographs become gateways to so many memories.
2. Anatomy and Physiology
This one is a no-brainer — ha, ha. All of us see doctors and all of us, or someone close to us, will likely have a medical procedure or a serious illness at some time in our lives. Medical care can be expensive and complicated; talking to doctors can be baffling. Studying Anatomy and Physiology will not only give you a schema for beginning to understand what doctors are talking about, but it will, more importantly, give you a schema for knowing what questions to ask in order to better understand your condition and the consequences of proposed treatments.
3. Child Development
Understanding how a child’s brain experiences the world at different stages in the growth process is so helpful in having successful relationships with the children in our lives. How many times have you seen adults take very small children to restaurants or doctor’s offices and expect these little ones to sit still and quietly for very long periods without any books or toys or crayons or paper, angering when the children cannot comply, and making them feel bad about themselves or, worse, punishing them for behavior they are not capable of stopping? Or parents who complain bitterly about their teenager’s need to assert their independence and explore the world for themselves? By understanding a child’s motivations, capabilities and limitations you will be able to better work with them instead of against them.
4. Composition through advanced composition
I cannot emphasize enough that there will be too many occasions in this world where you will have to express yourself clearly in writing: perhaps to your boss justifying the job you do, perhaps to your municipality challenging an unfair assessment, or, perhaps, to a church full of your friends and family if you are called upon to eulogize a loved one. Sounding intelligent, thoughtful, and reasoned in your writing will help you tremendously in getting ahead and getting what you want and what you need in this world. Not sounding that way will have the very opposite effect.
Statistics was one of the most challenging courses this philosophy major and English minor took in college. The skills I learned in this course have served me well both professionally and personally every single year since I graduated. Understanding both how to look at your world quantitatively and what these quantities tell you is essential in this culture. Daily we are bombarded with statistics about almost every aspect of our lives. Not only is it important to be able to look at these statistics with a critical eye in order to assess what they are, or are not, telling us; but it is also important to be able to create number stories about our own world to let others know just what we add up to.
These five courses reflect both my prejudices and experiences; your five recommendations might be very different. But to anyone who is engaged in educating themselves (an activity that does not end once you receive your diploma), my ultimate recommendation to you, dear listener, is to take courses in a variety of disciplines, especially those outside of your comfort zone. Some of these classes I have listed above were very difficult for me and I did not get my best grades in them, yet I have utilized the knowledge and skills I gained from each of them throughout my life. The world is a surprising place and in a flash will wrench you out of your comfort zones. Being able to understand how to look at the world artistically and scientifically and sociologically and analytically and numerically will help you negotiate many of the discomfort zones you will find yourself in, and maybe even help you succeed with a bit of confidence and panache.