The administration at any college will inevitably have some good policies and some bad policies. And the bad policies are generally not malicious, but merely misguided good intentions that have somehow devolved to a point where they become useless. The peoples and cultures requirement falls into this category.
I’m sure that the idea was born from goodwill. You can envision the administration sitting around their coffee table, talking about how multiculturalism will be important in the future and how understanding of cultural diversity is essential to the well being of the college community. So they decide, we need to make sure that the students here all become a part of that wonderful wacky diversity. We’ll say everyone has to take a class about some other culture. Makes sense, right?
Well, sort of. But there is a trouserload of problems with the requirement as it currently stands, and I’d like to go ahead and address a few of them. Any requirement established at the college should be judged on the basis of consistency, objectiveness, efficacy and opportunity costs. In my decidedly unhumble opinion, the peoples and cultures requirement fails in all four of these areas.
1) Consistency: How does this requirement mesh with the rest of the requirement system currently in place at Williams? I’d have to say, not too well. Williams has minimal divisional requirements in place that seem to serve their purpose rather well. Each student must take three courses in each division, thus ensuring that science-types read a book, bookish-types make a calculation, and so on.
However, there is a wide enough range within each division that one can mostly avoid areas that would seem valueless for one’s education. If I hate math, I can get away with science classes. If art and music seems unacademic, I will take English. The physical education requirement is equally lax; some physical activity is required, but those who find organized sports a waste of time have no problem finding other ways of fulfilling this requirement.
However, the peoples and cultures requirement seems far too specific. If someone finds the type of courses that qualify to be uninspiring, there’s no alternate way to go about filling the requirement. P&C is too narrow to merit its own requirement. Otherwise every department, rather than division, would also deserve a requirement. How can one go through college without taking math? Without history? Without Shakespeare?
While most of us would agree in principle that these seem quintessential to a college education, on the personal level we like the freedom to choose. Williams provides a liberal arts education where the well-rounded path is open, but we may decide to forego certain areas. Mandating that Williams graduates all take a P&C course while allowing that they could avoid taking a math, history or English course seems to be very inconsistent. Considering that Williams has no canonical requirement whatsoever concerning our own history, literary tradition or classical texts considered necessary to any educated man 50 years ago, it seems odd that we must be studied in that of some other random culture.
2) Objectiveness: How does one decide what qualifies as fulfillment of this requirement? “Theorizing Whiteness” and “History of Jazz” are P&C approved. “The Spanish Civil War in Literature and Film” and “Continental Philosophy: From Hegel to Poststructuralism” are not. I would wager that your average Joe on the street has more familiarity with whiteness and jazz than he does with the Spanish civil war and Hegelian poststructuralism. It’s relatively easy to look at a course and decide whether it’s division I, II or III. It’s a lot less clear how one decides what courses are people-and-culture-esque. At current, some mystical selection process exists wherein the course title and description is looked at and voted on. A requirement without clear understanding of what it entails cannot be valuable to the college community.
3) Efficacy: How well does this requirement achieve its objective? According to the course catalog, the goal of the P&C requirement is to “help students begin to understand the cultural diversity of American society and the world at large, so that, as citizens of an increasingly interconnected world, they may become better able to respond sensitively and intelligently to peoples of varied social backgrounds and cultural frameworks.”
For some reason, I don’t think studying “Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe” or “Basic Chinese” is really going to do this. Courses teaching conversation in another language or ancient history will not transform us into culturally sensitive people. Even if you take the course that you deem most cultural, the chances are that this semester spent showing up for two and a half hours a week will not fill you with understanding of cultural diversity and change your life. Great, so now I’ve studied a foreign language, some foreign writing, some foreign politics. My life and world view remains unchanged.
One has to ask if the stated objective is even achievable in the first place; more likely than not this is yet another example of preaching to the converted. Cultural diversity is all around us, at this point people who are going to be understanding are understanding and people who aren’t, aren’t. It’s very unlikely that the bigot is forced to take a course about Chinese history and suddenly has an epiphany that people can be different. Most of us realize that the world is a diverse place, those who don’t probably won’t gain anything from this requirement anyway.
4) Opportunity costs: How much do we value this requirement as opposed to everything else? Okay, so you might not entirely agree with me that the P&C requirement is inconsistent and subjective. And in all likelihood you disagree with me about the efficacy or point of having a P&C requirement. But this last is the most important point to consider when evaluating any sort of requirement. Is this the absolute best thing that these people should be studying with their time?
Liberal arts educations are designed to let students pursue their own interests. We have no core curriculum that must be attended to. This is based on the idea that our students are bright enough and mature enough to choose their own path to explore. To impose a requirement is to say, in effect, “This set of courses is so critical to your education, that it outweighs anything else you could be studying right now. Regardless of your chosen field, it is absolutely essential that you study this, because it’s worth more than any non-required way you could be spending your time.”
I am glad for the number of multicultural courses on campus. I believe that it is a positive thing for our college when so many diverse courses are offered, and the opportunity to take them is important. However, like all the other wonderful courses offered here, they should be optional and not required. With so many courses that would enrich one’s experience, it seems a bit presumptuous to choose these specific ones as the pinnacle of college education. If we were to have more requirements, there are other courses more deserving. But the fact of the matter is that we avoid such requirements whenever possible because we value the idea of choice.
So even if for some reason you were led to believe that the P&C requirement made sense internally, when one considers it in the context of our entire college experience, it becomes much less attractive. Forcing students to fulfill this ill-conceived requirement does nothing positive for Williams, and only adds another useless hoop that we are required to jump through.