April 22, 2018

MORADI | Dump the Distributions, Open up the Curriculum

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The great scam of Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences is that it fails to provide a liberal arts education despite purporting to do so. And with a $54,584-a-year price tag at that.

In a comprehensive final report on recommended changes to the undergraduate curriculum, the Arts & Sciences Curriculum Review Committee suggested a simplification of the current system of distribution requirements. Instead of a confusing matrix of requirements, the Committee recommends requiring students to take one course in a simple set of 10 categories.

The Committee’s proposal is a reshuffling of a curricular system that has promised a curriculum of breadth but instead left students with a failed curriculum of distraction. And I mean literally failed: Cornell received an F grade on a prominent 2010 American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey of core curricula in American colleges and universities, citing that many requirements may be satisfied by courses with little content pertaining to the core subject of the requirement.

The new plan for Arts & Sciences ignores the real tragedy of the distribution requirements: It’s not about the categories, but the menu of courses that fit them. Why else would Arts students be fighting to enroll in popular courses like PLPPM 2010: Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds that add little to what the ACTA report calls “the broad foundation of knowledge that general education ought to require”?

These kinds of accessible and specific courses are still immeasurably valuable areas for research and instruction, and they make for vibrant, focused study within a major. They do not need to be at the core of a general education. The lack of serious foundational knowledge is especially prevalent in PBS and MQR requirements, where there seems to be a false dichotomy between highly specific courses accessible for non-majors and the actual foundational courses that are considered to be too hardcore.

The result, so often cited that it’s a little trite, is a system of checking off boxes rather than intellectually exploring. As Brown Professor Matthew Pratt Guterl writes, what ends up happening is that academic advising becomes “a matter of making sure that students simply meet the requirements to finish on time. Guiding them to completion can trump a focus on individual awakenings and, in the worst-case scenario, produce a sort of ‘plug and chug’ approach.”

The goal of distribution requirements are, of course, to promote intellectual discovery and to push students out of the infamous and wretched comfort zone. As the argument goes, it’s okay if you have to take “Icelandic Family Sagas” because you could discover a love for and interest in Nordic mythology. But distribution requirements are not requisite for promoting student discovery or for enhancing interdisciplinarity; one student I spoke to said while she might not have taken her current history course without the distribution requirements, she also would have had more room to take more classes like it in the first place, were it not for the other distribution requirements taking up her limited course space.

Instead of just simplifying the curriculum, the College should upend it entirely. The Committee report states that the College’s curriculum “must, above all things, serve to drive exploration.” What better conduit for exploration than freedom?

Cornell should abolish the distribution system and go “Brownward,” like it already does in my personal academic home, the small and largely unpublicized College Scholar major. At the center of this conversation should be the understanding that students should be the primary architects of their education, and, as Guterl writes, “We should be fostering self-discovery and critical thinking for every student — approaching them as adults capable of making informed, exploratory choices.” As such, the College should provide students with a more rigorous system of academic advising, like the Committee report already suggests.

This decision, of course, requires more than a year in time and — if Brown University’s 300-page, student-led 1967 working paper on their New Curriculum is any indication — a large-scale reconsideration of what the goals of a liberal arts education are. In the meantime, the undergraduate curriculum survey is open until the end of Friday, April 27. I implore you to speak up on the state of your education, and on the Cornell Arts & Sciences education for years to come.

Pegah Moradi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pmoradi@cornellsun.com. All Jokes Aside appears alternate Mondays.