October 20, 2021

LORENZEN & VALDETARO | Two Opinion Columnists Debate Curriculum Reform (1/4)

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Several weeks ago, two opinion columnists got into an argument about curriculum reform at Cornell. They decided to record their disagreement and transcribe it as a discussion column inspired by “The Conversation,” a weekly column between New York Times opinion columnists, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens. Below, Cornell Daily Sun opinion columnists Andrew V. Lorenzen and Giancarlo Valdetaro discuss changes to Cornell’s academic policies. This conversation is divided into four parts to be released each Wednesday for the next three weeks. This is the first installment of A Cornell Conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.  

Andrew V. Lorenzen: So, the genesis of this column was that Giancarlo and I were having an argument about whether or not Cornell should abolish double majors. It was an idea that Giancarlo had that I felt very strongly against. Giancarlo, do you want to give your thoughts on why you support this?

Giancarlo Valdetaro: Yeah, so this idea came from a general feeling that the particular demands of being a student mean that you’re always on the clock in a certain sense, that it feels like you should be spending all of your time maximizing how much you do in an academic setting. The pursuit of more than one major is one way this is exacerbated, and it leads to people basically having no free time or no time when they can take a mental break (especially when you consider students who are also working). Double majoring and its requirements come at a serious cost — especially in regards to taking classes you wouldn’t otherwise take if they weren’t required by your major. So, that’s where the idea came from.

AVL: Yeah so, obviously as you know I’m very much not a fan of this idea. I have a few thoughts to lay out why I disagree. First off, I think you’re right that there is a foundational problem at Cornell with students being overcommitted and generally burnt out. But I don’t think this is the right solution to that. The problem at Cornell is a cultural problem. It’s not one that’s driven by double majors specifically. The reason why students are always overcommitted and struggling to keep up with their workload is because Cornell has an academic culture wherein we expect students to do that. That’s toxic, and it needs to be combatted. And there’s also, of course, some societal forces at play with how we try to incentivize students to have these absolutely overloaded resumes. It’s an arms race that’s endemic to most elite colleges, and it doesn’t really help anyone. It becomes a race to the bottom. Getting rid of double majors doesn’t fix that. The workload will just be subsumed to the next thing. Instead, it’ll be one major and four minors or something like that.

On the question of requirements, and students having to take classes that don’t really interest them — that’s not an argument against double majors. That’s an argument against having very strict requirements within majors. And I’m actually very amenable to that. I think there are a lot of majors that are far too prescriptive in telling students what they have to take. My third point is that I think this fundamentally violates the spirit of Cornell as an academic institution. I mean, “Any Person, Any Study” means that a student should be able to study anything they want. If they want to double major, triple major, even quadruple major, they should have the opportunity to do that. What Cornell, as an institution, should be doing is putting them in a position to succeed under the choices that they’ve made as a student. And that means that they should be more flexible with general college requirements. If you’re somebody studying two humanities majors, and you’re clearly not going into something mathematics or science related, you shouldn’t have to take four math or science classes. That doesn’t make any sense. So, it shouldn’t be a plan to abolish double majors, it should be a plan to better support double majors and create an academic culture that puts students first.

GV: Okay, I think there are some contradictory forces within that. At one stage, you say that we should be combating the culture of overcommitting oneself, which I personally am a great example of this semester, in that I’ve well overcommitted myself and am currently very stressed. But then on the other hand, you’re saying that when people do make choices that are representative of this culture of overcommitting oneself, that they should be asked no questions. In this case, the culture is only possible because of the choices that people are allowed to make.

AVL: So, the problem with that is, I think, you fundamentally cannot change a culture through restrictions placed on students. If that was the case, we would have no underage drinking at Cornell because Cornell strictly does not allow underage drinking. Creating rules that prevent students from doing things is not going to actually stop them from being overcommitted. The reality is that most double majors aren’t double majors because of the culture side of things. It’s not because they feel it will necessarily make them that much more marketable. It’s because they’re genuinely interested in two subjects, and they want to pursue both in a rigorous manner. So, when I’m talking about the issue with the Cornell culture and students being overcommitted, what I’m referring to more so is students who are taking 22 credits a semester, and students who are taking a ridiculous amount of very difficult classes in one semester and stacking extracurriculars and doing an internship on the side… a bazillion things at once. And the end result is a student that’s burnt out and not achieving at a high level in any of their classes. That is not an issue with double majors. That’s an issue with students pushing themselves way too hard. And the solution to that is either strict credit caps, which I personally don’t agree with but can see the argument for, or it’s a significant intervention in freshman year to set academic expectations in a far more restrained manner.

Agree? Disagree? Comments can be sent to [email protected]. A Cornell Conversation runs every Wednesday for the next three weeks.