Akbar at Yale

Will Econ Help Me Protect Afghanistan From Warlords?
Examining higher ed.
Nov. 16 2005 3:25 PM

Akbar at Yale

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In Afghanistan. 
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In Afghanistan

Here at Yale, most students turn to teachers and friends for advice in figuring out what they really want from college. But for me, the person who really helped me understand what I wanted was a guy writing to his wife in 1780. John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams, wrote, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." The quote, which I first read at the library while researching for a paper, really resonated.

When my native country, Afghanistan, was turned upside down in the fall of 2001—my senior year in high school—I became involved with a place I had never seen before. (I call it "native" because I was born a refugee in Pakistan, and my parents lived in Afghanistan for most of their lives.) After college, my plans are to go to Afghanistan to help with the rebuilding efforts in whatever capacity I best can. It's a pretty bizarre feeling to be attached to a country that has fallen so far behind—even though I'm 20, it might be possible that I am of the generation that only brings enough bare order to Afghanistan that the next generation can study mathematics and philosophy.

With friends at a Ramadan banquet at Yale
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With friends at a Ramadan banquet at Yale

Which makes my time at Yale a little strange, since my goal is to use the opportunities here to train myself, like the young Bruce Wayne, for the challenges of Afghanistan. Obviously, choosing a major is key, and it's what I've been wrestling with recently. For a long time I wanted to be an Econ major. But the other day I was sitting in one of my core economics classes at Yale—a huge class filled with overachievers sitting in the front row furiously jotting down notes and jocks huddled up in the back making obnoxious sounds, laughing at their own jokes (and in case you're curious, I sit somewhere in the middle)—going over the von Neumann-Morgenstein utility function, when a thought popped up: When am I ever going to need this? Sure, plenty of college students wonder this during a dull lecture. But in this case I was studying Econ: Knowing this stuff was actually pretty useful—if you planned on going into investment banking in New York. For Afghanistan, this seemed to be a little ways away. The classes over in Poli Sci look a little more essential to me: Violence and Civil Strife, the U.N. and International Security. That's what I'm now wondering if I should set my cap at.

Part of my new dislike for Econ has to do with the difference between Yale and community college. At Diablo Valley College, my economics professor was a World Bank official who had experience everywhere from Yemen to India, and plenty of time—and the interest—to sit with me and discuss economic development in Afghanistan. Before I left, somebody warned me that the professors at "big-name" universities would not be the same.

That's proven to be the case, to some degree. Plenty of professors are great in the classroom. For others—especially some of the bigger names—teaching seems to be the last thing on their mind. One of my professors walks into class and starts copying down on the board exactly what he has given to us as notes, downloadable online from our class server—most of my friends don't see the point in coming to that class (and usually don't).

With General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
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With Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum

So, a few weeks ago, I dropped that economics class and decided to reassess my situation. It might be expecting too much from Yale to help me learn how to deal with people like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious—even by Afghan standards—warlord who is said to have crushed some of his own people with tanks and killed his enemies by suffocating them in containers by the hundreds. What I do know is that utility functions will not do much against these types of people.

Hyder Akbar, 20, is the author ofCome Back to Afghanistanand a junior at Yale.