Which Non-Technical Classes at Harvard Should a Technical Major Really Consider Taking?

Reposting my answer to http://www.quora.com/Harvard-College/Which-non-technical-classes-at-Harvard-should-a-technical-major-really-consider-taking

Question: What non-technical classes at Harvard should a technical major really consider taking?

I’ll suggest a few classes, but I’m going to focus on proposing a framework for thinking about what non-technical classes would be most valuable for you to take as a technical major. After all, every person is unique and would enjoy their own particular set of classes!

I see at least three distinct reasons why you would want to take a non-technical class. But I’d like to focus on the first one, because I believe it’s the most important one to spend time thinking about. If you don’t read everything, at least read this first section.

1. How are you going to apply and utilize your technical major?

A few notes before I begin:

  • This question is especially pertinent for those in computer science, as it’s a technical skill that today can be applied to advance or revolutionize nearly any industry. But this should be worth thinking about for other majors as well.
  • This question isn’t as important if you’re planning on research or academia post-graduation, because your options are not as wide and diverse (as far as I can tell)
  • Finally, I’m going to be writing from the perspective of a CS major, because I’ve thought about this from that perspective the most.

As a Harvard student with a technical major, you have two enormous luxuries due to your first-rate intellect, your technical skillset, and your Harvard degree:

  1. You have a lot of options for choosing a career and industry, and so you have the opportunity to do something you truly love and are passionate about.
  2. If you devote yourself, you can leave a lasting contribution to whatever it is you set your heart and mind on.

But the big question is, what industry is that going to be? In what field will I be happiest applying my technical skills? And what cause do I desire most to advance within my lifetime? Do I want to be crusader in genomics and personalized medicine, and be a part of the individualized, genetically-based cure for cancer? Do I want to be a champion for human rights worldwide, and utilize technology to tackle underserved needs in impoverished communities? Or shall I become a leader in consumer technology and radically transform the way people connect and communicate?

I strongly believe that you can be any of these things, if you so have the will and desire. What will you want to be? I still have no idea where I will find my calling, but thankfully, college is perhaps the best place possible to determine where I will find that highly-sought intersection of talent, passion, and impact: the lifelong work that I excel at, that I love doing, and that will make the world a better place. Harvard is filled with endless opportunities and packed with the brightest people in every field imaginable with big ambitions. And if you take the initiative, you can learn whatever it is you want, and best of all, you can back out at anytime and start over again with something new with very little friction (compared with post-graduation).

So, what to do? Your technical major will give you the raw skills needed for the job, but it will not tell you how you should be using those skills, what industry you should enter, or what cause you should advance. I believe that the best way to find your cause is to explore different domains and get exposed to the big problems ahead. Take classes in different fields, and think about how (and whether) your technical skills can be applied in those fields. Curious about education technology? Take something like US35: Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education. Global health? Maybe SW25: Case Studies in Global Health. Government? How about DPI-682: Solving Problems Using Technology (HKS/GSD)?

Get exposed to all sorts of problems, needs, and opportunities in this world, because there are a lot, and sometimes we don’t realize it because we have such privileged lives. Discover a cause that you’re passionate about, whether it’s that no mother worldwide has to be afraid to die while giving birth, or that every child has the opportunity for a solid education. If you like the class, try getting an internship and getting some real-life exposure to the kind of work you would be doing. Find your calling.

I won’t say as much for the last two sections, not because they’re not as important, but because I think they’re more self-evident.

2. Obtain the foundations for the liberal arts education. Learn what any highly-educated person should know.

I won’t make an exhaustive list here, but here are some things that I think any highly-educated person should strive to understand. You don’t have to know all of them, but the more is better! And of course, these are just some of my opinions and you don’t have to agree — discuss with your friends, respected colleagues, and mentors!

  • Basic macroeconomic theory (Ec 10, Ec1010b)
  • How the American political system works (Gov 30, but seems to be a so-so class)
  • Some philosophy; Ancient Greek philosophy is very foundational and perhaps the most referenced (Phil 7)
  • Some history, take your pick (Hist 1011 and SW14 I’ve heard are good, but there are plenty of good courses)
  • A few of the “Great Books”
  • General biology, general chemistry, and general physics
  • Basic statistics and probability

It should be easier to determine what classes are good once you’ve narrowed it down to a particular subject. Ask a concentrator in that field.

3. Broaden your horizons and get out of your comfort zone

At least once, take something totally out there just to expand your mind a bit. It’s easy to learn about things you know you don’t know, but it can often be quite hard to learn about what you don’t know you don’t know. But becoming a well-educated and worldly person is all about the latter, and this is one way to address that!

Classes about a different ethnicity or culture, past civilizations, a foreign language, history of a time period you’re unfamiliar with, or a field you think you wouldn’t be good at tend to be good for this. Look at Q scores or ask friends, and find a course our of your comfort zone with a phenomenal professor.

Do let me know if that was helpful, or if you have any comments, disagreements, or questions. I spend a lot of time thinking about this and I’m continually refining my philosophy. And what better way to do that than to write and discuss? Enjoy! :)