Freedom needed when selecting courses

In reading over last week’s page of student opinions, I was struck by how immediately the simple prospect of a “core curriculum” opened out into a much larger set of questions regarding the means and goals of education itself. Should our mandate as a liberal-arts college be, as Seth Brown ’01 suggests, to offer every student “some basic information from every area” (well, not every area: the basic information that might be gained from a peoples and cultures course isn’t basic enough, I suppose, for his taste)?

Or should it be to offer students a range of courses from which they can pick and choose as they discover their interests and talents, with no sense that any one of those courses is more or less “central” than any other to their “well-roundedness?” Is the relatively requirement-free Williams curriculum a student’s one chance to experiment freely, without constraint, before being straitjacketed into the post-B.A. world of the (single-) disciplined professional? Or should our mandate come closer to Scott Moringiello’s ’01 proposition that a good liberal education requires a sense of coherence and progression through a program of study, whatever that program might be?

I tend to believe the latter. As a matter of fact, students may be surprised to learn how much energy my colleagues and I put into the very problems with which Moringiello grapples. I don’t think I’m mistaken in saying that most of us struggle on a continuing basis to instill in our majors a basic familiarity with the key questions and methods of our respective disciplines, a familiarity that can be used as a resource in more advanced courses. I’m sure it is true that we don’t always succeed in this project, but it remains a central goal for most, if not all of us, and sometimes we even meet that goal.

When I designed “Theorizing Whiteness” (that glorious scapegoat of a course), for instance, I depended a great deal on my students’ presumed experience with literary method and theory. This is, after all, a seminar for English majors, mostly juniors and seniors, all of whom have a fair amount of experience with, and enthusiasm for, both “canonical” and “non-canonical” method and text. And lo and behold, I have not been disappointed. These folks are on the ball, and it is their very rootedness in the discipline of literature that allows us to participate in a collective reshaping of its contours.

So we faculty stand accused. We “teach our research,” and indulge our own interests in designing courses. But what does that mean, exactly? Don’t we have a responsibility to track the current state of our respective disciplines, and to give students a sense of where we (and they) might take our place within those disciplines?

That, I think, is the real challenge of the Williams curriculum. Instituting a “core curriculum,” in which a student would be required to take a certain narrowly-defined set of courses, would not help us meet that challenge. It might, in fact, turn us back in the direction of dilettantism, producing students full of “information,” but lacking the practiced skill required to make something of it.

Come to think of it, perhaps “The Philosophy and Politics of Higher Education” (one of the courses Moringiello suggests may not have a place in the curriculum), should be the one course we require of every Williams first-year. From day one, students would be forced to consider their own educational values, and to begin to discover a course or courses of study that cohered around those values. Perhaps then the curricular choices they proceeded to make, and the questions they proceeded to put to themselves and their professors, would more likely result in an education with a true and useful trajectory.

Kristin Carter-Sanborn is an associate professor of English.