I only remember two of the courses I took in college, and neither was in my major.
I went to college in the 1970s as a pre-medical student, and my college curriculum was dominated by courses that were pre-requisite for medical school. None of those courses matter now. By the time I began my professional career, everything I learned in those courses was obsolete, and the textbooks I used are now yellowed museum pieces in my library.
One of the courses I remember was in Play Directing. I always enjoyed theater, and spent lots of time in college writing plays for the campus radio station, my honors thesis, and just for fun. I was not, however, a theater major, and had to beg a very reluctant department chairman to let me register for his upper level course in Play Directing. Fortunately, he said “yes.”
While I have never directed a play, I have used the lessons of that course every day of my life. Learning how to direct a play taught me how to envision people working together, how to organize and manage individuals and teams, how to both expect and inspire their best work, and how to resolve both technical and interpersonal challenges. Play directing taught me how to be critical and how to take criticism. Even more important, the course taught me that the measure of accomplishment was less the technical quality of the on-stage performance, but rather how it was perceived by the audience and how it impacted the patrons.
I also remember a history course in Western Civilization. At the time, I doubt if I expected assigned readings titled “Medieval Technology and Social Change” and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” would have an important influence on my life. What I learned from these readings was that the world I had been taught about as a child was not static, that social mores evolve, that national boundaries change, and that wars and cultural conflicts come to an end. I had enrolled in pre-med because my parents wanted to be sure I would make a living, but I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be a physician. My course in Western Civilization showed me that science was inextricably coupled to societal structures and social change, and how I might make a difference as a physician and scientist if I worked on this boundary between science and society. The books that were assigned in that course are now well-worn, and prominently positioned on the shelves above my desk even today.
What courses ultimately matter in college? Many courses are important because they provide the skills prerequisite for your next step in life, whether towards graduate school or your first job. Such courses, however, are single stepping stones on a much longer path; they may give you traction, but they do not give you direction. The college courses that are ultimately the most important are those that refine your vision and your vista; those that sharpen your personal skills, your perception, and your perspectives; those that move you beyond your first job or your graduate degree, towards an unforeseen future.
Fred Ledley is professor of natural and applied sciences and professor of management, and director of the Center for Integration of Science and Industry at Bentley University.