I always laugh at the idea of taking a “fourth class” — the idea that three of the courses we take relate to our concentration and the fourth is “just for fun.” I understand the principle behind the phrase, but the wording is peculiar. Is a course outside of your discipline less important? Given that we sought out the disciplinary breadth afforded by the open curriculum, “fourth classes” are more like “first classes” — without them, the Brown education simply wouldn’t be as unique as we like to believe it is. Shopping period, the time to choose “fourth classes,” is long past, but the inescapability of midterms makes this a perfect time to reflect on our choices, good or bad.
I took a different approach to the “fourth class” dilemma this semester, and it’s been a surprisingly interesting experience. I’m enrolled in ECON1710: “Investments I,” a class outside my concentration and career path. It doesn’t exactly fit the bill of the typical exploratory, low-stakes class that people tend to use to diversify their course portfolio. But as far as fourth classes go, it’s an excellent choice. It has exposed me to new frameworks and ideas and has allowed me to rethink the value of coursework in traditionally more career-focused disciplines.
My education provides me with various lenses through which to see the world. As we know, Brown students have an annoying habit of critically analyzing everything that passes under our noses. For example, when I watch the news, I place events in historical context, dissect the language used by pundits and wonder about the changing role of media. All this is in addition to my public policy training to consider the policy implications of issues. This intellectual multitasking is at the core of the open curriculum and is not inherent to only certain disciplines. Intellectual elasticity is all-encompassing. In fact, it is particularly valuable to understand financial markets given both their outsized role in the world and the outsized role our Brown peers will, in all likelihood, play in them.
Being able to make sense of these institutions and instruments is crucial to understanding global patterns, modes of thought and analytical frameworks. It’s a stretch to call Investments a humanities class, but it’s certainly applicable to the ideals of a liberal education. In that sense, it’s not fundamentally different from other “fourth classes” and provides a similar mental exercise. It provides me with a new lens, one which helps decode some of the world’s most powerful entities.
In addition, a holistic understanding of the world is impossible without a basic knowledge of economics. I’m not saying the framework it provides us is correct (i.e., the idea of rational actors, a focus on profit maximization, belief in the market, etc.). But it’s not inherently less valuable than any other discipline. For those who whole-heartedly reject capitalism and have so far assumed that I’m a sell-out in disguise: I challenge you to explain how to go about problematizing something without understanding the gears and forces driving it.
The argument has been made many times that a Brown degree is great preparation for a career in finance. I want to explicitly point out that this is not my argument, nor do I see it as an implication of my argument. Rather, I don’t understand why the common interpretation of what a liberal arts degree should look like is in contrast with the perceived value of “pre-professional” disciplines. I’m not pre-professional. I’m barely even pre-amateur. But I’ve found that such classes have added a dimension to how I read the world. Of course, it’s also problematic to learn these things without placing them in greater context than their application to managing hedge funds. But that’s for another column.
The phenomenon I describe is nothing new. The earliest I can personally trace it is third grade, when I remember being very frustrated by the process of learning script. I knew full well that my teacher was lying about adults demanding script letters. I asked: Why should I learn something I won’t need to use? It goes without saying that this question was naive and unenlightened. In answering the question now as a college junior, my argument turns my elementary-level utilitarianism upside-down. My commitment to learning something that’s immensely practical for a purpose other than its pragmatic application serves to prove my point.