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 second installment of A Cornell Conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Giancarlo Valdetaro: Okay, so you bring up changing academic expectations through some sort of social intervention. But what good does expectation setting do if there is no change to the systems students are interacting with? My question is: Do you really think that people take 22 credits out of pure interest? Do you not think that there is a connection between the ability to get a second major to have that additional accreditation, and people overloading their schedules?
Andrew V. Lorenzen: Well, I have a problem with the framing of your question because you do not ever actually need to take 22 credits if you’re a double major. I’m a double major, and I’m graduating a semester early. And I’ve never taken 22 credits once. Never. So, I refute this notion that a double major inherently leads to that because if you plan or if you have two majors that have some overlapping classes, you won’t be in a position where you have to take 22 credits. And I don’t think that the double major is the impetus that’s driving students to overload themselves.
GV: But do you think your experience is representative of all students who pursue a double major?
AVL: I think it really varies quite a bit between majors. I would guess there are students who have a lot more trouble with it honestly, and that do have to take 22 credits at times. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But I think that if you take away double majors, students are still going to find ways to overburden themselves. The reality is that Cornell attracts an extremely high-achieving group of individuals who try to do too much. It’s inherent in the types of students Ivy League schools try to attract in their application processes. It prioritizes people who work way too much. And as a result, you get students who are getting burnt out because they’ve basically been trained to do so throughout their academic career.
The other thing that I just genuinely have trouble with on a philosophical level is that we’re asking students to pay obscene amounts of money to attend this school, and then we’re putting restrictions on what they can study. That doesn’t make sense to me. If students are going tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, I think they should be able to choose absolutely anything they want to do. The school should say “Great! We’ll support you, we’ll give you the tools to succeed” and that’s it. If I had it my way, we’d have no requirements, no restrictions, nothing on students. It would essentially be like Brown University’s open-curriculum , where students can take anything they want, follow their intellectual curiosity and branch out in unexpected directions.
GV: So, that’s what you would do in order to deal with the culture of overachievement?
AVL: Yeah, I would get rid of requirements on students.
GV: As in, distribution requirements?
AVL: Yeah, those, and while I don’t think you can necessarily get rid of major requirements because that kind of erodes the need for a major in general, I would significantly incentivize departments to lessen their requirements. Or at least make them more flexible, so students have more choices within them.
GV: Okay, then how do you deal with the culture then?
AVL: It’s a harder question to address, but there are a few things you can do. Number one, I think Cornell needs to be more aggressive about letting students know that overburdening themselves is a bad idea as soon as students first arrive on campus. This should be done in first-year orientation groups and advising circles. Cornell needs to be more attuned to the mental health of students. Unfortunately, the University has not been very attuned to the mental health of students in the past. So, number one, you emphasize it in orientation. Number two, you have a much stronger advising system where advisors actively discourage students from doing too much. And number three, I don’t think Cornell can go at this alone. This culture is not specific to Cornell. Maybe it’s worse at Cornell, but I think it exists at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Harvard… I think it’s at top-level schools around the country. I think higher education as a whole needs to answer this question. How it does that, I’m not entirely sure. But I don’t see credit limits, more oppressive requirements or restrictions being the way to get out of it.
GV: Okay, but why not credit limits in this situation? Because you’ve already said you don’t think that taking that many credits is necessary.
AVL: So, I’ll concede that I think you can make a stronger argument for credit limits than you can for getting rid of double majors. I can see the point of them. Personally, it just goes back to the philosophical notion: Why are we saying you can only take so many classes when you’re paying a ridiculous amount of money to be here? That just strikes me as wrong. And I think that there also should be room to allow students to mess up. If a student makes a mistake and takes too many credits in a semester, they should have that experience and learn from it. I know we don’t want that to happen, and we want to make sure that students are always succeeding. But we should have a system where when students overcommit themselves, they learn from that experience. They should be supported, so that their mental health doesn’t deteriorate. But they’ll know from that experience that in the future time management and making sure they don’t overcommit themselves is something they need to prioritize.
GV: I think my skepticism of that laissez-faire view is that I have very little faith that those other supporting institutions will be set up and will actually work for people, given the experiences of students who’ve had to interact with those institutions.
AVL: What institutions are you referring to?
GV: Cornell’s mental health institutions.
AVL: I’m in agreement there. The mental health support system at Cornell is not nearly good enough.
Agree? Disagree? Comments can be sent to [email protected]. A Cornell Conversation runs every Wednesday for the next two weeks.