Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

October 25, 2016

During Curriculum Review, Profs Compare Visions for Liberal Arts Education

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In the midst of the first curriculum review in 15 years, faculty and students are gathering to discuss how the College of Arts and Sciences requirements contribute to the goal of a liberal arts education. The Sun asked various professors to weigh in on the merits of acquiring a robust liberal arts degree.

The curriculum committee — a group of 15 students and faculty members — is currently developing plans to explore common areas of concern, including the Arts and Sciences degree requirements, according to Gretchen Ritter ’83, the college’s dean.

Several professors said they believe a Cornell liberal arts education prepares students to think critically in the real world.

Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, said students who graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences acquire basic scientific, cultural and historical literacy, making them “prepared to enter into the workforce and society, grounded in the great ethical issues of our time [and] write coherently and speak articulately.”

However, he said the liberal education the college currently provides could be improved by “better advising, more consistently excellent teaching and more student commitment to get the most intellectually out of Cornell.”

Current curriculum policies can “be characterized as either indifferent or implicitly hostile” to a liberal arts education, according to Prof. Richard Bensel, government. The responsibility of providing such an education then falls to individual faculty members, he said.

However, Prof. John Sipple, developmental sociology, said he believes that the CAS, by the nature of its requirements, provides a liberal arts education in the contemporary context of getting a high-paying job after graduation. Although society’s obsession with employment is a potential threat to the ideals of a liberal education, the two goals are not mutually exclusive, he said.

Sipple added that he hopes his students leave Cornell with “a greater appreciation of who they are, where they come from and their role in this broader society.”

Bensel noted that curricular review is a complicated subject, but also said he hopes that the CAS develops a “core curriculum.” This program would allow students to study common materials “so that, at the end of their sophomore year, any two students can discuss at least some scholarly works that both of them have read.”

Faculty also stressed the importance of student engagement in the curricular review as the changes ultimately impact undergraduates.

“We all have the responsibility to engage in that conversation,” Sipple said.

Prof. Tom Pepinsky, government, a member of the curriculum committee, expressed his concern that some students could be unwittingly deprived of some of the academic advantages the committee has in mind, depending on the courses they select.

“Students seem to feel a bit lost,” he said, explaining that some may not know how to choose courses that provide them with all facets of a liberal arts education.

The curriculum committee will continue to meet throughout the 2016-17 school year to discuss different approaches to teaching and advising.