November 13, 2018

JOHNS | Don’t Abandon Cornellianism

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Above the roaring waterfalls and placid slopes of Ithaca, Cornell University stands as a testament to American intellectual prowess, an Ivy League institution with over a century and a half of storied history and contributions to this country and the world at large. It represents the eternal mission of human learning, and the value of America at her best: it has produced great scientists, writers, and statesmen, contributed to advancements across every field of study, and endured as a pinnacle of international academia. But this university was not made great by its professors, or its patents, or its published works; Cornell’s success blossomed from its College of Arts and Sciences, appropriately the first school founded at Cornell. The rest of the campus was built — both literally and culturally — outward from that educational and moral center. This is the bedrock of a Cornell education, as significant and as firm as the concrete poured under our libraries and our dormitories.

A simple question: What should be the goal of a student at Cornell University? Obviously, different students will prioritize different pursuits, both academic and extracurricular, but the University itself offers clear direction. Above the staircase in the iconic Goldwin Smith Hall reads a quote from former Cornell president Hunter Rawlings: “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.” This truism seems increasingly lost on modern Cornell — Cornell is a responsibility, not a privilege. It is not merely a place for students to live for five figures a year; it is a call to join a group of some 15,000 people all striving to become the best versions of themselves, in the same spirit of generations of Cornellians before them. Sadly, too few at Cornell today share this vision — one of constant but deliberate intellectual discomfort that is indispensable to the formation of real knowledge. A large part of this burden falls on students themselves. Cornellians who graduate without nurturing a genuine love for intellectual pursuit on its own merits have largely wasted their time at Cornell. It is lamentable that the university now has a culture in which such a narrowed experience is possible and even validated.

Such a development should not be surprising given the gradual erosion of the College of Arts and Sciences, both in its size and its commitment to its values. The College’s student body is shrinking, not growing, as a portion of the university at large — a consequence of expanding vastly more narrow pre-professional programs across the university. This is not to say these institutions are misaligned with Cornell’s longstanding academic objectives, which date back to its 1865 founding. However, as they grow, Cornell slowly becomes less centered — academically, culturally and financially — around the College of Arts and Sciences. It would be a monstrous mistake for Cornell to prioritize these intriguing but non-core endeavors at the expense of a broad, liberal arts education on which the university was built.

Over the last year, the Arts and Sciences faculty, responding in part to the complaints of these students, have considered a misguided proposal to reduce the College’s language requirement, the latest in a litany of curriculum changes aimed at making the college’s requirements less “burdensome.” To her credit, Prof. Stephanie Divo, Asian studies, pushed back against this proposal, appropriately arguing that “the requirement would have basically attracted a lot more students toward languages where they could fulfill the requirement more easily, or at least that would be the impression.” She is right, unfortunately, but she stopped short of the key argument: A true education, especially a liberal arts education, must be intellectually rigorous to be truly meaningful. Efforts to alter or adulterate Cornell’s liberal arts roots would mistakenly diminish the value of a Cornell degree, and would damage its distinguished culture for years to come. This is the choice confronting the university in 2018: either to submit to pressure to create a diluted and less rigorous Arts and Sciences curriculum, or to draw on its historic strength and recommit to its traditionally challenging foundations. The latter, of course, is the appropriate course of action.

Shelby Foote once noted that “a university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. The library is the university.” Cornell should take this a step further. This great and globally-recognized university is not simply a home for talented high school graduates to pay exorbitant tuition to lay claim to an unearned collection of knowledge. Cornell ought to be a summons to engage with, grow from, and fully experience that knowledge. Shelby’s library is simply a conduit; the people, both the faculty and the students, are the university. Cornell, to its credit, has the great luxury of being able to draw on its distinguished 153-year history of awakening human beings through education. The main criterion on which Cornell’s nearly unmatched brand is built is whether talented students leave the university as the world’s brightest and thus capable of being its most accomplished — and the temptation to dilute academic standards must be rejected to preserve that uncompromisable ideal.


Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at