You can tell a lot about a generation by which of their college classes are hardest to get into. The 1960s saw Kennedy inspired legions of poli-sci majors, the Cold War spurred a rise in Soviet studies and more recently, the Internet boom led to a wealth of new html courses.
By this yardstick, here's what one could say about the youth of today: they're hyper-curious, geeky, adventurous foodies who love TV and want to visit countries they're not supposed to go to.
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As the new school year kicks off, The Daily Beast asked ivory towers across the country what their "best classes" are this year—the ones everyone wants to get into but only the lucky few can. It was, by no means, an exhaustive sample: 54 schools, both public and private, were asked to participate; we culled the most interesting of the bunch. Still, the survey yields some surprising conclusions about what's on the minds of today’s college students. First of all, forget what you've heard about American kids' alleged disinterest in science and math. Even at liberal arts colleges, the most oversubscribed courses this year fall almost invariably under biology, chemistry or physics. “This generation has been born into a worldview used to questioning one’s assumptions,” says Tammy Nyden, a philosophy professor at Grinnell College. “Analysis and experimentation are built into our culture now and very appealing to young people.”
It is, indeed, the era of the cool nerd, and the wonky sense of curiosity embodied by pop-science stars like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan is playing out in the clamor for geek-chic classes.
Yale Amazon Rain Forest Expedition and Laboratory Scott Strobel
During Spring Break, Strobel takes his 18 upperclassmen for a hands-on tour of Ecuador’s rain forests. This trip, no doubt, is a huge selling point. But so is the fact that Strobel’s father, also a world-class microbiologist, discovered the organism that produces taxol, the base component of a major breast-cancer drug, on a similar trip. “The sense of going from the jungle trail to a potential pharmaceutical is definitely a draw,” Strobel says.
But Strobel also warns that some of the scientific turnout by students must be attributed to great professors. Captivating science faculty can be so hard to find that if word gets out that one is excellent, students will stampede to enroll. “Science professors can be incredibly good because they are so passionate and knowledgeable about what they teach,” he says. “But they are the exception, not the rule.”
Wellesley Personal Finance Ann Witte
The financial meltdown has blown the economics major wide open; such courses are oversubscribed at nearly all campuses this fall. Witte’s personal-finance course was always fashionable among Wellesley students who thought they would be soon heading off to Wall Street. But now demand is just as likely to come from coeds looking for skills that will keep them out of the red once they graduate. “Students take out loans and credit cards all the time without even thinking about it,” says former Witte student Noelle Fogg, adding that she thinks the class "should be renamed ‘life skills’ and be mandatory.”
Kansas State Harry Potter’s Library Phil Nel
Not everyone's paying forty grand a year for something as frivolous as economics, though. Take, for instance, Nel’s “Harry Potter’s Library” literature course at Kansas State. The 30-person course always fills and typically has a waiting list at least twice the size of the class.
Nel believes that the course should not be seen as competing with the more traditional English canon. “There's a prejudice against both popular fiction and children's literature,” he says. “The Harry Potter class encourages students to shrug off that prejudice, and treat these books with the same degree of thoughtfulness usually reserved for Woolf, Shakespeare, or Austen.”
Students agree. “I think the fact that the university allows [Nel] to teach a class about Harry Potter says more about my generation than anything else,” says fifth-year KSU student Ryan Felber. “Administrators finally understand that students do better in school when the classes are about topics that interest them.” Plus, Felber adds, “We have seen Harry Potter go from a great kids’ novel to an international sensation—it’s part of our heritage and our background.”
Grinnell College Space, Time and Motion Tammy Nyden and Sujeev Wickramasekara
This interdisciplinary course hurtles its students back in time by allowing them to reconstruct important scientific discoveries of the 17th and 18th centuries while also discussing their societal implications. The lessons come from antique textbooks, and the labs are done using either rebuilt or borrowed historical equipment. “For humanities students, this is a way to learn classical physics without being bogged down by math,” Nyden says. “For physics majors, they get to emulate the greatest scientists of their field and see the messiness of the lives of their heroes.”
Middlebury College The Economics of ‘Sin’: Sex, Crime, and Drugs Jessica Holmes
A former blackjack dealer and casino pit boss, Holmes is young and vibrant with the background to match. In this elective course, she takes basic microeconomic principles and applies them to less staid pursuits, such as adultery, teen pregnancy, illegal drugs and online gambling. As the professor herself adds, “It is often easier to get students to debate the economic arguments for and against the legalization of prostitution than to discuss the latest employment estimates.”
University of Michigan The History of College Athletics John Bacon
Bacon’s engaging style and famous guest lecturers— including several of the Big Ten school’s most-admired football coaches—make his class a perennial favorite. In the course, he dissects why college sports, particularly football and basketball, play such a large role in American culture and how they have become a multibillion-dollar industry.
But Bacon has also clearly found his passion in life and encourages students to do the same. As the professor himself put it last spring upon receiving the U of M’s highest teaching honor, “If you hate what you do, it will never be enough, never enough money, never enough awards.”
Auburn University Dave Letterman Physics Mike Bozack
Bozack is infamous for charming his students with a variety of stunts, including lying on a bed of nails, letting students shoot him with Tasers, and jumping on the lecture table dozens of times a semester. He uses physics to explain the best way to hold a tennis racket or tackle a running back. His lessons have made his intro “mythbusters” course probably the most popular way on campus for undergrads to fill their science requirement.
Still, part of Bozack’s charm is that he does more than just explain why your shower curtain may, on occasion, unexpectedly attack you. No, he believes that his job is challenge students to their fullest potential. “I’m not good because I’m easy but because students perceive that I really do care about them,” he says. “I tell them, sometimes for the first time, that you can’t spend your life playing video games.”
Lewis and Clark College Modern Cuba Elliott Young
Sometimes a beloved class can just capture the undergraduate’s imagination. Lewis and Clark College’s “Modern Cuba” prepares members to study abroad on the island the next semester. “Students are clearly interested in Cuba because it is the forbidden fruit—U.S. tourists not being allowed to travel there by the U.S. government for almost 40 years,” Young says. “I think its popularity suggests that this generation of college students doesn't like their government to shield them from experiences and prevent them from gaining first-hand knowledge of alternative political and cultural ways of being.”
UCLA Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture and Law Robert Goldberg
Goldberg’s course is always one of the first to sell out these days and commands a deep waiting list. And he has been lauded on many occasions for being one of UCLA’s best teachers. That said, there’s also definitely something about his course material that appeals directly to today’s student. “Go to the grocery store to buy a tomato or read about global warming and the subject matter of this course affects your everyday life,” says former Goldberg student Daisy Robinton. “People of our generation want to be more active and informed about such things.”
University of Texas Life and Death Decisions Sheldon Ekland-Olson
The sociology department's “Life and Death Decisions” forces students to debate controversial topics such as abortion, in vitro fertilization and the death penalty. Another class delves into the Beat Generation’s influence on modern-day culture. “It’s really heartening that students are flocking to courses that ask big questions,” says Texas academic advisor Richard Ribb. “Especially while every motivation produced by our society propels them toward accounting and advertising majors.”
Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.