Most Cornell students are not intellectuals. This is not a criticism. You can be intelligent without spending your free time engaged in philosophical debate. Nor is it to say that we don’t work hard. Go to any library at night, and you’ll see tables crowded with laptops and textbooks. But even so, most of us are motivated by grade point averages rather than the true desire to learn.
This emphasis on grades seems to be a generational phenomenon. A recent study in the Journal of Personality reported that college students would rather receive a good grade on a paper than eat a favorite food or engage in sex. If chocolate cake can’t compete with an ‘A’ plus, how can a comparatively less tempting history class?
But our preoccupation with grades may be costing us a real education. By only taking subjects that we know we’re good at, or classes that fall under ‘A’ in the median grade report, we’re missing out on areas that might be incredibly fascinating and informative. Although every college has distribution requirements — intended to provide students who aren’t majoring in the liberal arts with a broad educational foundation — it’s easy enough to fulfill these requirements without ever leaving one’s own subject area. If one does, it’s likely for a class known to be an easy ‘A.’
Clearly this is a generalization. I’ve met many students who do take classes outside their discipline out of genuine passion for the subject. But this seems to be an increasingly rare phenomenon. Maybe this stems from parental pressure to emphasize courses that will lead to a high-salary jobs or from the growing significance of standardized testing at the expense of true learning. But many students whom I have met do not realize the true value of a liberal arts education.
Grades are not the only reason students are reluctant to explore the liberal arts. A popular belief among engineers is that liberal arts are “not useful.” As one engineer said about history: “I can look anything up on Wikipedia in my own time. Why is a teacher necessary?” And a CALS student criticized the “soft sciences” because “you’re not learning real things.”
This narrow focus might serve them well when applying for jobs. Employers want to see specialized knowledge. But in the long run, these students are missing out on a valuable opportunity. In other countries, like Britain and France, students are forced into specialization early in their academic careers. But the idea of liberal arts curriculum is firmly entrenched in the American educational system, and it’s a shame that so many students fail to recognize this privilege. When else will we have the chance to learn about wines and ancient civilizations and how the mind really works? And to learn it not from a book, but from people who know what they’re talking about and are willing to explain it to ignorant eighteen-year-olds?
Perhaps students would be motivated to explore new disciplines if the University administration made it easier for them to learn about what courses actually entail. A quick glance at Courses of Study reveals why so many students stay with what they know. Many courses lack a description and the descriptions that you find there are dry, too general and usually not compelling. Cornell has so many exciting courses taught by great professors, but if you don’t hear of them through word of mouth or accidentally stumble across them, you’ll never find them –– particularly if you’re an engineer or biology major unsure of what subject you might enjoy.
And what about course evaluations? Most other universities encourage students to provide feedback on their courses and even publish the results on their websites. After reading these evaluations, students can make a more or less informed choice. But the College of Arts and Sciences does not make course evaluations public, so students are left to sift through websites like College Confidential and Rate My Professors for information and course advice. If Courses of Study were made more like these sites, students would find it easier to explore the variety of disciplines that Cornell has to offer. The site could include features like pop-up descriptions and student comments, as well as the course evaluations that we all fill out.
I don’t deny that college is meant to prepare us for future careers. But failing to take advantage of the liberal arts resources the university offers means we’re cheating ourselves out of our full money’s worth — and out of the best educational opportunity of our lives.
Elisabeth Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. The Critic’s Corner appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.