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. This is the last installment of A Cornell Conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Giancarlo Valdetaro: I mean, I also think that your insistence on double majors is coming from a very particular perspective, and one that can be short-sighted with respect to the importance of transcripts or degrees beyond a certain point in life. Which isn’t to say that accreditations aren’t important in particular fields. You brought up film. I don’t know cinematography personally, but I can understand why people would want to see that you got a degree in it if you choose to pursue a related occupation. I can understand why you’d want to make sure the person engineering your building got a degree in engineering. But there are a lot of times when once you get more than a couple of years out of school, the specific thing(s) that you studied, the specific thing(s) that you got a certificate in, aren’t as important as the other experiences that you’ve had as a working adult. And I think that is a limiting factor in this conversation. We, as students, surely joke to each other all of the time about the fact that nobody is going to care what I got on this exam in a year or even in six months. And I think the insistence on the ability to advertise that you have an accreditation in a specific field, the importance of that is inflated in your analysis.
Andrew V. Lorenzen: I think you’ve got a fair point there, but you’re missing two important things. Number one, yes, I concede that maybe seven times out of ten what you studied in college doesn’t make a massive difference in terms of your employment… But we can’t predict when that is. You don’t necessarily know what your first job will be out of college. It’s possible that what you studied makes a huge impact on what your employment ends up being, and it’s possible that it makes absolutely none at all. You can’t predict based on what major you studied if that major will be useful to you or not, particularly because careers and student aspirations can change a lot, especially between freshman and senior year and going into potential graduate programs. So, I just don’t think you can say uniformly, your major does or does not matter. We just have no idea.
Number two, one of the things that you’re leaving out, and I know this isn’t a large group of people but I think it’s important to consider… There are a lot of folks who come to college, and their parents have very specific ideas about what they should and should not study. And that usually means pressure to study something that’s more “practical.” And that means that that student may also want to study art or they may want to study music, something that doesn’t necessarily have the connotation of being easily employable. That’s usually what that second major will end up being. They’ll have a first major that’s ostensibly more practical, more likely to lead to an immediate job after graduation because the parents push them in that direction, so they’ll take that major to pacify them. But they’ll have a second major which is what they’re actually passionate about. And that’s not an enormous group of people, there’s lots of people who are genuinely passionate about two different things. But for those folks, having both of those majors is extremely important even if it’s not marketable post-grad. I think that needs to be taken into account.
GV: I still think that you’re not focusing on the tools that the University has, and how the system can be designed to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. And I know that people will always look to fill their time. I like being busy… until I’m too busy. But the University only has certain tools at its disposal. Do you need to get rid of double majors entirely? Maybe not. But if people had to apply to get a double major, or go through some sort of process that makes people actually think about whether or not they want it and why they want it, so that it’s not just a “Well, I guess if I only take five more classes these last two years…” I think otherwise, you are living in the race to the bottom. The only way to stop the race to the bottom isn’t to tell people to stop diving. It’s to raise the floor.
I think the University does have responsibility in creating the problem. And I would like them to first “do no harm” in this situation and remove some of the incentives for people to act in ways that might lead them to become overcommitted. To just add a little bit of resistance at the very least.
AVL: I just think you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here. The issue with students being overcommitted, being stressed, being burnt-out is not because students are able to double major. That’s not the root cause of it. The root cause is way deeper than that. It goes back all the way to college applications, and the way that process is absolutely ridiculously intense. It goes back to how you’re expected to have X,Y, Z years of job experience before you apply to your first job, and how that doesn’t make any logical sense either. What we expect on a resume these days is tenfold what we expected twenty, thirty years ago. This is a problem with American culture, with higher education culture. It’s not a problem with academic requirements or restrictions at Cornell. And I think that if you start trying to impose restrictions, you’re going to do a lot more harm than good.
GV: All I’ll say is that I think culture is like water. It finds the cracks in an institution. And maybe this institutional set-up would be fine outside of this culture, but we have to act acknowledging the reality of this culture. And I would just like to be at a university where it doesn’t feel like all of the time that a significant number of my friends and I have is held hostage by the potential to be doing work for whatever classes we’re taking.
AVL: That’s fair. I just personally want to be at a university where any person can choose any study.
Agree? Disagree? Comments can be sent to [email protected]. This is the last installment of A Cornell Conversation.