Oberlin Blogs

Problem Solving

June 16, 2010

Elizabeth Houston ’06

Note: the first draft of this entry was inspired by an an article I read in the New York Times a few months ago, about how some business schools are adopting new curriculum components to ensure that their graduates are able to do things like think critically and creatively solve problems (which happens to be what businesses want from their employees). The article does a pretty good job of explaining why a liberal arts education may be particularly useful for your future high-paying career, and you may find it interesting.

Interestingly enough, I don't often get into long, impassioned discussions with people about why a liberal arts education is a good idea. I even tend to skip over that issue in my information sessions, because I figure that if you've gotten to the point where you're visiting Oberlin, you already have a decent sense of why a liberal arts college might be good for you. I'm also not usually prone to explaining how a liberal arts college might actually be the best way to prepare for your future career, because I don't personally rank "preparing for a future career" as the top reason for going to college. But it's definitely a legitimate concern, so today I'll try to relate what I learned at Oberlin to my current job.

Okay, so I work in the Admissions Office. This is pretty much equivalent to working in any Basic Office Environment, where I have certain responsibilities and complete projects (the discussion of most of which would be incredibly boring to anyone not directly involved--ever hear your parents talk about their work around the dinner table to the great excitement of no one?). Basically, I work on things that you would never ever take a college course on exactly how to do. I think this is the sort of category of job that most people end up doing after graduating from college.

What did I study at Oberlin? Well, I majored in Politics and minored in Computer Science. Putting aside for the moment that, having gone to a liberal arts college, I took classes in many other subjects as well, let's examine these two subjects.

Politics. Yes, I majored in politics. No, that does not mean I want to be a politician. No, that does not mean I want to go to law school and become a lawyer. (Random insistent stranger, why can't you understand this?!?) But why else would I study politics? Well, the study of politics can be described in many different ways, but my favorite is as the study of collective problems and how people try to solve them. Yeah, I learned lots of specifics about how governments work, but, ultimately, the study of politics was a lens through which I got to learn about and practice creatively identifying and solving problems. I also had to further develop time management and effective communication skills to get through my classes with respectable grades.

Identifying and solving problems, juggling priorities and meeting deadlines, excellent written and oral communication--this is already starting to sound a lot like...my job.

And here's the computer science part. I'm the "technology person" in our office, which people often think is directly related to having studied computer science. That's a common misperception. No, learning how to program recursively in Scheme does not help me fix your problem in Excel. Studying and implementing various different search algorithms is not the reason why I know how to update the website. Yeah, okay, a couple of times I have busted out the old programming skills to hack some scripts written in languages I've never worked with before to make them do something slightly different. But does having studied computer science really directly relate to my technology duties? No.

Which is not to say that my computer science classes were useless. Programming, and studying algorithms, is another exercise in looking at problems and how to solve them. Sure, it's approached from a completely different direction than in politics, and you're looking at different types of problems, but the fundamentals are the same. In programming, you get lots of good practice in thinking logically, in identifying a problem and breaking it down into the individual steps required to solve it, and then implementing the solution you have planned with a careful attention to detail. Which is relevant to, oh, pretty much everything.

A liberal arts degree means I took classes in many different subjects besides just politics and computer science, which means I had many other opportunities to practice more approaches to solving problems, from different perspectives. The problem-solving didn't stop outside the classroom, either--for four years I was a member of a 100-person dining co-op, and if that's not an exercise in collective problem solving, I don't know what is.

There are many other benefits to an Oberlin education, but I believe that the most important thing I learned was how to think better. If I had to summarize in one phrase what I learned during my four years at Oberlin, I would say I learned how to solve problems. Lots of different types of problems, in lots of different ways. Sure, you'll pick up all kinds of other interesting and potentially useful pieces of information, and we do a really good job of teaching all of the important bits of information you need if you're going on to a specific field. If learning bits of information is most important to you, Oberlin is a good place, but not the only good place, to learn all of those things. But learning how to solve problems? I can't think of a better place to do that.

Similar Blog Entries