October 12, 2010

Redistributing Requirements

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One of the greatest infrastructural features of Cornell is that immediately upon matriculation every freshman is assigned a faculty advisor. Further, we gain access to new advisors as we pick majors and work on senior theses. And having an advisor alone provides a certain sense of comfort when thrown into a huge university and asked to go ahead and create your own curriculum — it certainly feels nice to have some advice from someone within the University. But at the same time, in the College of Arts and Sciences, we’re given distribution requirements — completely standardized guidelines that undermine the individualization we’re simultaneously granted. So on the one hand, I would like to express appreciation for the advising system, and on the other urge the University to take this already established resource and use it to reduce the imposition of generalized academic requirements. Instead, students should be held responsible, along with their advisors, for creating diversified curriculums — a change that can be easily implemented and hugely beneficial.

I got incredibly lucky with my advisor and he’s been a great help, but regardless, there are still certain courses we’re all required to take that are inevitably going to stunt the breadth of our actual academic foci. The undiscriminating distribution requirements in Arts stem from sound reasoning: Educated adults should have experience, skills and information spanning a variety of fields. However, who’s to say which fields define breadth? For double majors especially, the breadth requirements plus two sets of major requirements force students to create curriculums based almost entirely on requirements — therefore, in attempting to encourage study in a diverse set of fields, breadth requirements limit our exposure to these fields.

This would be acceptable if it was implausible to develop individualized schedules for all students. Then, it would be a blanket guarantee that students take a range of courses. As it functions now, however, we are given overlapping and often contradictory resources. The intentions are all decent. But the system should be streamlined in order to function more smoothly and accommodate more students’ needs, resulting in deeper, broader, more well-rounded educations.

Instead of the inflexible general distribution requirements, I propose a system in which individual students can customize, with their advisors, ways to accomplish course requirements. As stated on the Cornell website, in order to graduate and achieve a degree in the College of Arts and Sciences students must complete: in the Physical and Biological Sciences (PBS) and Mathematics and Quantitative Reasoning (MQR), two PBS courses, one MQR course and one PBS or MQR course. In the Humanities and Social Sciences “students must complete five courses of three or more credits from at least four of the five following categories:” Cultural Analysis, Historical Analysis, Knowledge, Cognition & Moral Reasoning, Literature & the Arts, Social & Behavioral Analysis.

These requirements on the their own are not offensive, however they create a very defined and rigid definition of what it means to have a well-rounded education. It’s a structure suited to an institution without resources for individualization. But Cornell provides each student with an advisor. What’s more, according to the University’s website, each advisor averages 12 students at a time. Individualization would not be impossible to enact.

Instead of the blind application of distribution requirements, perhaps more general requirements could be set with room for students along with their advisors to decide how to accomplish them. For example, perhaps students must all take a certain amount of courses outside of their majors. However, these courses could be discussed with their advisors and either consist of courses purely of interest, or courses complimentary to the major that the student would otherwise be unable to take. This way, the sense of intellectual exploration remains present without a stifling sense of obligation.

This could potentially generate excitement when looking for classes and allow students some freedom of exploration outside of their majors in a way that might enrich the student’s field of study without the obligatory distribution requirements. The College of Arts and Sciences would then still emphasize breadth of knowledge, however the breadth needn’t be so standardized. The distribution requirement would then feel meaningful and exciting, and even more classes and fields of study would be open to every student. The diversity of fields of study within the humanities or math and sciences each alone are more than enough to offer a wealth of variety.

The advising system already stands as an incredibly positive force in the University. The knowledge alone that there is always a professor whose advise I can seek has eased much of the stress and bewilderment that comes when choosing courses. And I have taken advantage and gotten some incredibly useful advice from my advisor. But I still lament the fact that regardless of how incredible, broad, diverse and exciting any schedule I may come up with may be, there are inevitably courses we’re all going to have to sacrifice for the distribution requirements — all while there is an undeniably valid and healthy alternative to the steadfast rule.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter