Your Favorite Classes

Readers recommend religion, logic, psychology, and dirt.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

This week, we at Slate have been sharing stories about our favorite high school, college, and adult education classes—the classes we think everyone should take. Now it’s readers’ turn to give the advice. We asked people to email us short descriptions of the best classes they’ve ever taken, and some of the most interesting and representative responses are below.

Looking through all the submissions, one class stands out: religion. About 10 percent of the people who wrote in recommended some form of Bible study or comparative religion class—either to enrich your faith or to make you question it. 

The next most popular recommendation was taking a foreign language, followed by psychology, then logic or critical thinking.

To read or share more recommendations, please dip into the discussion in the comments section below or on Twitter using the hashtag #TakeThisClass.

And whatever you’re studying these days, in college or in life, may you ace every test that comes your way.

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Comparative religion. Considering how many news stories revolve around religion, and how many people are religious in the United States, it is important to have some understanding of the world’s faiths. All Christians, all Muslims, all Buddhists, or all Hindus do not maintain the same beliefs or conduct the same practices. Anyone who knocks a particular religion or religion in general without knowing anything about it is a bigot, and no one can claim to understand the underlying philosophy of any world civilization without understanding their religious beliefs.

My college negotiations class was incredibly useful, if only because it taught me one very valuable lesson: You can’t get what you don’t ask for. Not only did I learn academic frameworks like BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement), but I was also taught some practical lessons in trust and relative value.

Intro to soil sciences. Dirt is everywhere, and it’s something that we don’t really think about that much—but it’s fascinating! It shapes the landscape, which dictates the flora, which supports the fauna, and ultimately, us. Some students have their epiphanies in comparative religions or philosophy. I saw the light in intro to soil sciences. It’s been 20 years since I sat in that classroom, but not a week goes by that I don’t think about something that I learned that quarter.

Anthropology. The study of human interaction: how communities, societies, and civilizations form and interact. Have the professor toss a little archeology into his lectures and this drama major was fascinated!

Critical Thinking. It was my first exposure to complex reasoning and exploring the poorly named concept of “common sense.” Without even having to dip into formal logic, the long list of informal fallacies and extensive practice identifying them in real world discourse prepared me to be a discriminating adult. In this world of constant media exposure, political correctness, and double-speak, it’s more important than ever to not take a lot of what we read/hear at face value. In my opinion, a critical thinking course should be required for all college students (maybe even at the high school level), to equip everyone with the ability to read between the lines and question what we read and hear. Maybe then “common sense” would actually be more common.

Social psychology. So much of what we think we do based on logic or rational thought is really just unconscious reactions to the social situations we find ourselves in. Learning about things like the fundamental attribution error (where you tend to attribute the actions of others to internal factors, and attribute your own actions to external factors—that is, you are late because you are lazy, but I am late because traffic was bad) or the Asch conformity experiments (where people convinced themselves that obviously true things—like the relative length of several lines—were untrue in order to conform with a groups opinion) make you realize that you are less in control of your mind than you once believed.

History of the scientific revolution. This is the origin of much of the modern world. Not just scientific and mathematical thought, but philosophy, medicine, agriculture, and economics. Out of the Reformation and the wars of religion that it spawned, an entirely new way to view the world grew: careful observation, logical analysis, and mathematical quantification instead of magical thinking and belief. This is the best class I took in college, and it gave me a much better understanding of who we are and how we got here.

The most indispensable class for any truly educated person is a class on Shakespeare. It is a fundamental building block for understanding literature, literary criticism, poetry, history, politics, psychology, religion, and human nature, just to name a few of the benefits.

The most important class I took as a political science major was called diversity, disagreement, and democracy. We were expected to embrace the process of seeing a variety of perspectives, and we had some really excellent discussions in that class. We learned that disagreement is a healthy aspect of a vibrant democracy, but we also came to understand that fewer people are willing to engage with each other, leading to the increasing polarization of the American political landscape. 

Beginning basic drawing and computer graphics. Many people can’t even hand-draw a simple diagram, much less create one on a computer. I think if people were to get a course in drawing simple visual aids, such as a map, a chart, or just a simple line drawing of an object, they would find themselves in need of less lengthy explanations. As an artist, I am not the very best at learning foreign languages. Nevertheless, I have been able to navigate other countries with some assistance from my sketchbook and pen. When we recently were in an auto accident, I did a drawing of where the cars were when stopped, which assisted with the police report. I have never seen such a course offered, but there should be one.

Comparative mythology was one of the most eye-opening courses I took in college. It taught me that that’s exactly what religion is: mythology.  And more importantly, it also showed me that one culture’s myths are no more valid than another’s (and that they often have more in common than you’d think). At the time I was struggling with the decision of whether to remain in and dedicate myself to the faith in which I was raised. Comparative mythology (and a few other world religion courses) taught me to think about the things I had been indoctrinated to believe as infallible, unquestionable Truth from a very early age in terms of historical context and with respect to other cultures’ viewpoints. It’s the class that, more than any other, made me the person I am today.

I decided to take macroeconomics because I knew nothing about the subject, and it was Fall 2012 and the election was in full swing. I struggled through the class but was more informed during the election. I worked hard for a C-minus, and out of all the A’s I got during my time at college, that’s the grade I was proudest of: because it didn’t come naturally to me and I did have to work hard for it.

A foreign language. It stretches you way past your comfort zone. It makes you embarrassed when you’re conversing and making mistakes, but it also gives you the chance to study abroad and to travel. It also increases a person’s empathy to people from other cultures. Coming to the U.S. and learning a hard language like English is no joke (never mind leaving behind everything you know and entering the Great Unknown), and learning a foreign language sensitizes you to what others must overcome.

Introduction to materials science and engineering. Materials underlie all modern technology. Why aren’t electric cars better? Battery electrode materials don’t have the same energy density as gasoline and degrade after a few thousand cycles. Why didn’t Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan survive the tsunami? The cladding material reacted with steam to produce (explosive) hydrogen. What’s holding up the deployment of inherently safe Generation 4 nuclear power? Materials that can withstand the temperature and corrosion environment. Why are solar cells so god-awful inefficient? The most expensive epitaxial-layer solar cell materials are physically limited to about 30 percent efficiency at most; the inexpensive, mass-consumption polycrystalline solar cell materials, closer to 15 percent. And so on, for thousands of pages of examples. All of modern technology—and the problems, like energy and the environment, we wish to solve via technology—can only be fully understood by understanding materials. Materials science is literally the subject from which all other subjects are made.

Death, dying, and beyond. The class included a field trip to a cemetery, funeral home, and mortuary! Some great fodder for thought and discussion for students in their early 20s. 

My most important class in college was a seminar on Virginia Woolf. While the content—the brilliant, challenging novels and the feminist political writing—shaped my future as a historian of women and gender, it was the seminar format of the class that had the biggest impact. There were only eight or 10 of us in the class, my smallest class by far at the large, land-grant public university I attended. Being in that environment, where the professor made it clear that we were there to learn from one another, that all of our ideas mattered, and that she saw us all as scholars in our own right who had important things to say, was powerful. I’ve never forgotten that class, and it shapes the teacher I try to be every time I step into the classroom. I know the empowerment I got from a class of that size and format would have gone with me no matter where I went in life. Take a seminar!

Classical literature. Sounds boring and potentially tedious, but a basic knowledge of the great books is extremely helpful on many levels, not the least of which is making you sound well educated at interviews and cocktail parties. I’ve been in the entertainment industry as a studio executive, a writer, and a producer, and I realized that I had a big hole in my education, having never taken a class in literature. I took on the task myself, and reading the classics helped me have a much deeper appreciation of not only literature, but of writing in general.

Many colleges offer both group and private voice lessons for credit to nonmusic majors. Singing is an activity that offers incredible variety, whether you want to be the queen of the local karaoke club, take part in musicals in a community theater troupe, or be a member of a local opera chorus. Also, many singing-based activities (such as religious or community choirs) come with a built-in community that can help you find a social and support network whenever you move to a new city. The investment in learning to take care of your vocal instrument for many years to come, as well as to expand your knowledge of styles and genres, can yield dividends for many years after college. And in the case of private voice lessons, vocal instruction often represents a unique opportunity for students to receive one-on-one instruction.

Debate can enrich the college experience for anyone. Regardless of our background or future goals, we have all found ourselves in many situations where we must hold to our own knowledge and articulate why our vision or belief is more practical than another’s. Debate encourages us to expand our wealth of knowledge, and in so doing, the depth of our convictions. Anyone with a family, a group of friends, or co-workers and a boss has been building these skills. And anyone in debate class will have an unmatched opportunity to refine and polish those skills so necessary to all walks of life.

When I was a freshman at Georgetown, all incoming students took a class called the problem of God. This course changed my life, and I think everyone should take it. Fewer Americans practice religion every day, although most of us profess a belief in God. But because we are exposed to less religious education—we are not going to church, and religion is taught in fewer schools—we are losing out on learning what religion teaches us: a framework of belief about who God is and how God works in the world. This is, of course, radically different from religion to religion. And it is radically different from every religion to say, for example, “I believe in a little bit of everything,” or “It’s all one God no matter what you believe.” Each religion (or no religion, or panreligion) has unique claims of truth, and all of us, ultimately, claim one. We have to, to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. It is worth our while to consider what our religion really is.

The lessons I took away from literary theory made me a much better reader. Before this class, I was primarily reading in a passive manner, taking the words off the page, and my initial gut reaction to them, at face value. But the philosophical and sociological theories I learned from this class made me much more engaged with the text, whether it’s identifying gendered word choices, looking into postcolonial themes, or putting the piece in historical and philosophical contexts. Beyond reading and writing, I think literary theory made me a better observer and listener, too. The multiple interpretive approaches to the same text can also apply to worldviews as well, so this class also enhanced my ability to empathize and appreciate different perspectives to the same situation, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.

I would recommend taking a class about death in America, which covers: the criminal justice system and the disproportionality between races and genders/sexes, physician-assisted suicide, the military and its impacts on different socioeconomic classes, and the Second Amendment. Having the ability to openly talk about these issues with people from all backgrounds is incredibly valuable; especially when you consider the past year’s events across the county relating to police brutality. As someone coming from a privileged background, I never really considered these issues prior to college. I have gone from that blind ignorance to becoming passionate about reforming the prison system and introducing more re-entry programs here in the United States.

As an English major, I was able to satisfy my math requirement with a class on logic. As a writer, I found this invaluable. I learned about logical fallacies, such as begging the question, the straw man, and burden of proof. These and about 50 others have improved both my writing and critical faculties. How many times have you heard someone trying to make an argument by citing several examples, which you counter with a fact that could disprove their point, and they respond: “That’s the exception that proves the rule,” which is of course logically impossible. “Prove” in this smug response actually means “tests,” and your exception in no way actually bolsters their argument.

If you want to learn more about statistics in a fun way, I recommend Sabermetrics 101: Introduction to Baseball Analytics. It is offered by Boston University through EdX. It’s free. One of my favorite parts of the course is when professor Andy Andres and some of his students live-tweet with the online students while watching a Red Sox game. The live office hours are also fun. Andres is one of the few professors teaching online courses who you can actually have a bit of interaction with.

Communication writing. We learned to tighten our writing and make it evocative. People who just need basic writing skills will benefit. Florid academics and flowery prose writers will benefit from the discipline. Professionals who are subject to word limits will benefit.

The best class I didn’t know I needed was a course on human sexuality. It was sex ed, the way sex ed should be taught to high school students. One part basic human anatomy, one part psychology, all brought together very modernly and in a nonjudgmental environment. Not simply the “how babies are made” class, the course talked about how and why humans are sexual. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know until I took this course.

Child development. This should be a requirement for high school graduation. Most people don’t go into a field that has anything to do with children, but most people have children. They are not miniature adults, but fascinating, wonderful people in their own right. While it won’t answer all of parenting’s mysteries, it would make future parents better informed about what they’re getting into!

Intro to physics. Without basic physics, electricity and magnetism is just magic.

Square dancing. After years of working hard and worrying about grades, it was wonderful to spend an hour twice a week laughing and dancing. It helped remind me that life should be fun, too.

Read more of Slate’s collection of classes you should take.