The Shock of the New
Outreach in the Core Curriculum
The American education system is pretty much unique in stressing that a smattering of disciplines should be studied at tertiary level. In Britain and countries which still vaguely retain the vestiges of its empire, degrees are targeted so specifically at certain career paths that students are generally expected to declare not just their major, but their life course before entering university. This means lots of dentists barely out of braces, lawyers not yet legally permitted to drink and interior designers still living in the bedrooms their parents furnished some twenty years before—complete with pastel-hued alphabet friezes running along the walls.
Such a situation is, needless to say, hardly ideal. Not least because alphabet-related decorating schemes, particularly those in pastels, are just not a good look for a recent college graduate of any discipline. But perhaps the premise of the liberal arts education can be taken too far, rounded to the point where it might be said to have passed beyond the point of voluptuous to a plus-sized state of outright voluminous. Sure, it’s a Good Thing when your family doctor is well-versed in the ins and outs of both Kant and cardiac arrest, and of course long division (for the sake of argument) should not be beyond the reach of even the most diehard lit-critter. An entire semester’s-worth of courses aligned explicitly as outside the interests set forth by the student themselves, however, seems to cross that proverbial line and interfere in a rather cumbersome way with the development of a focused academic program.
The problem arises when students take classes they don’t want to take. I had a particularly disastrous run-in with Science B last year where I learnt an invaluable lesson: If you drag your heels, it’s not only going to take you a long time to get to the biology labs. It’s also going to be difficult to get much out of the course. This class, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, involved a lot of naming different kinds of vertebrates, drawing different kinds of plants, and measuring water levels at various points. All this was fairly straightforward, but then the class collectively experienced a collision of tectonic plates. To explain: Geological movements portrayed in ambiguous pictorial form are difficult to understand, no matter how many times you explain them. I’m still not entirely sure how exactly a coral reef is formed. It was a debilitating experience for our collective egos to be unable to explain to each other what looked like a simple illustration, and rather than go to office hours in between writing papers for concentration classes, a lot of people took the much easier route of giving up on the class.
This is a shame, because in retrospect it would be useful to understand such phenomena were I ever to find myself in the middle of some serious plate action—living in Los Angeles, for instance. But there were a host of problems involved in trying to teach something outside most students’ spheres of experience and confidence which need to be considered more explicitly before still more such classes are foisted upon the much-beleaguered student body. Big issues like the fact that the enrollment represents wildly divergent background knowledge and high-school science curricula. Or the fact that the humble three-letter word “lab” can conjure up a host of negative associations for a nervous humanities major which need to be worked through very slowly and sensitively if the course material is to make any headway whatsoever.
There will, of course, always be those Renaissance men and women who can confidently roam through the various spheres of knowledge with cool-as-a-cucumber confidence. But these types, irritatingly adept as they are, will be taking a wide range of classes in any case. If everyone is going to continue to know a little of everything, and four science classes for all undergraduates is going to become a reality, there needs to be more thought on the packaging and presentation of said material. There’s a very real fear factor inherent for many in traversing the murky waters outside their own area of expertise, and the sooner this is acknowledged, the better the lab experience of future science-phobes will be.
Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears regularly.