A few words on the curriculum

Of late, there has been a tremendous din in the educational world about

a supposed “lack of standards” in college English curriculums across the

nation. According to the Jan. 10 issue of The Chronicle of Higher

Education, less than one-third of 70 of the nation’s top colleges and

universities require students majoring in English to take a course in

Shakespeare. Harvard is the only Ivy League school with a Shakespeare

requirement.A recent issue of The Williams Free Press decried this so

called erosion of standards, stating that “[a] core curriculum first and

foremost gives students a common language and set of categories by means

of which to understand and raise questions about the world in which they

live in.” This is valid, but incorrect, especially when dealing with

Williams’ curriculum.Many who criticize the movement towards a more

diverse college curriculum — not based on the “western canon” — are

ignorant of the goals of such a push. They seek to broaden, not narrow a

student’s mind, and to expose them to works and ideas which they may not

otherwise consider. It is then up to the student to decide which ideas

and classes are valid. This treats college students as mature consumers

in the marketplace of ideas, not as immature sheep to be shepherded

through a four year college education, incapable of self-guidance.As

Professor Robert Bell of the English department stated in the Feb. 25

issue of the Record, “What’s important is that Williams students be

encouraged and required to read carefully, think subtly, and respond

significantly.” We couldn’t agree more. The issue should not be what

students know, but how they deal with knowledge presented to them.

Shakespeare is of little use if it is not understood, and who is to say

that ancient texts such as The Gorgias are of more worth to today’s

modern student in fostering thought than say, Jamaica Kincaid’s novel

Annie John, a beautifully told portrayal of life on the Caribbean island

of Antigua. By creating a core curriculum in the place of looser

divisional requirements, or no core at all, a student’s intellectual

options are diminished, exactly the opposite of what education should be

seeking to do.While the merits of many of the books and ideas meant to

be included in a “core” are clear, their requirement would necessarily

exclude other, equally valid materials. The current standards at

Williams are rigorous and fair. They force students to delve into the

three “divisions” to expand their minds, without completely ignoring all

breadth of field. And this is exactly the right idea — expose students

to more, not less. Even offer more courses on urban, ethnic, and other

so called “alternative” issues — in Williamstown we are all too often

unaware of such things. To impose more rigid standards, with an emphasis

on western thought, would indeed be a loss for the Williams education at

large. The answer is to broaden the range of course offerings, not to

change the required curriculum. Let courses both traditional and

non-traditional, be taught side by side, so that student’s can decide

which are more useful. The answer to ignorance is the offering of more

knowledge, not the reduction of a student’s educational options.