Did they teach you that at Yale?

When I went back to Georgia for my first college winter break in 2015, my friends welcomed me back with warmth, but also a level of suspicion – “how much had the United States changed me?” After realizing that I hadn’t converted to calling football “soccer” and that we still laughed at same jokes, they relievedly inquired about Yale: “Were the classes taught strictly and methodically? Were the professors the smartest people on Earth?”

At a first glance, these questions seemed logical, but I soon realized that they revealed a pattern of misconceptions many Georgian hold about the strengths of American higher education. These questions focus on a narrow, formal definition of education and miss its abstract, but crucial elements.

The first economics course I took was a 240-student lecture, but the professor treated us as if we were all joining the Federal Reserve Board of the U.S. immediately after graduation. While the material of the class was similar to any introductory microeconomics course, a well-established, highly successful professional taught us with an assumption that, if we tried hard enough, anything was achievable. This attitude was a product of mutual understanding between the students and the faculty that we all aimed high and worked hard to achieve our goals. The professor was undoubtedly smart, but it was the attitude, universally present in all of my classes, that birthed much of my self-confidence.

The professors’ confidence in their students is hardly blindly optimistic. It is backed by the motivated, daring and constantly innovative student body.

Students are attending university not to complete a degree, but to complete a skill set that will enable them to successfully pursue their ideas. Students, who work hard to earn their spot at the university and understand the use of the education it grants, create an environment where pursuing your passion with rigor is the norm.

Confidence and hard-work, however, require guidance. When I first came to Yale, I was 18. I had never been to the U.S or lived alone before. I had little understanding of how the American education system operated. Thankfully, Yale also provides a range of helpful resources. Professors hold office hours to help with the concepts discussed in class. The peer-tutors and writing partners provide help on the assignments one might have never worked on before. An office of career strategy and a wide range of professors gladly offer informed career advice. Various fellowships or department funds allow to pitch ideas and put them into fruition. The availability of such resources reflects Yale’s philosophy: young people, however smart or ambitious, need wise and knowledgeable mentors to grow from talented students to skilled professionals.

“So, what?” you may ask. Yale has an endowment of nearly $ 30 billion – of course it can channel confidence and provide ample resources for its students! What could Georgian universities possibly learn from an institution so far removed from their reality?

Several facts are true for any institution. Every decision is a function of limited available resources and policy priorities. Being an alumnus of a Georgian public school, I have personally witnessed schools prioritize surface-level events over deeper, community building efforts. The same is true for many Georgian universities as well. Most of them operate on the assumption that education is a time-tested combination of memorization and technical understanding. The intellectual environment, mentorship and student collaboration make for nice conversations, but they don’t build rockets. Fortunately, the empire interested in that line of production fell in 1991.

Of course, the Georgian institutions should maximize the availability of resources like funding for the student-run projects. They should also democratize the use of university funds by communicating with the student body in a more direct, transparent manner.

However, there is a different currency a lot of improvements can be acquired with – an informed, directed reform. The universities’ journey to redefining themselves as a place for developing usable skills (and not a vending machine for degrees every citizen will inadvertently possess), starts from within. Creating an alumni network could establish a feedback mechanism for identifying how the skills acquired at the university benefitted or failed the students in achieving their career goals. Professor’s position as a figure of authority that exclusively lectures, but rarely dispenses friendly advice, could be transformed with increased awareness about the benefits of mentorship and collaboration. The intellectual atmosphere could dramatically change once students, having successful alumni to emulate and the faculty to help them shape their career paths, start believing in themselves as well.

Some of these changes might not amount to a significant transformation on their own, but they amplify each other. In any system, a fundamental change triggers a chain reaction. An increasing number of students who believe in their ability to develop a valuable skillset and build a career out their passion gradually amounts to a community. Within several generations of students, the culture of excellence starts to take shape, standards of success rise and leaders emerge.

Yale was once an institution started by several clergymen with forty donated books and just a handful of students. It has come a long way. There is no reason why our universities cannot.

Author: Levan Margvelashvili

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