College should require some structure

Despite continual talk of campus apathy, there is one social evil that invariably provokes passionate advocacy in the average Williams student. Is it the plight of the working poor? The destruction of our planet’s rainforests? Of course not. The ill to which I refer is none other than the injustice of degree requirements.

It will come as no surprise that students (at Williams and most other institutions of higher learning, I imagine) have no love for rules that dictate they must take classes other than those they’d like. There appears, however, to be a growing number of students who feel it is deeply unfair that they be at all obliged to take any specific course or sort of course.

Following a recent forum on the P&C requirement, many students have made known their opinion that the requirement should not exist. All sorts of arguments may be brought against this requirement, some of which, as I wrote in these pages several weeks ago, strike me as legitimate. What is disturbing, however, is that, more often than not, few arguments are thought to be necessary for abolishing this requirement – it is taken as self-evident that we ought to have as few limits as possible on which courses we may take.

When I told College Council that a member of the Committee on Educational Policy had advocated requiring that a writing intensive course be taken in every student’s first year, I was met with strong opposition. When I told them that faculty complain that the writing even of juniors and seniors is frequently poor, many still insisted that to learn or improve even this most basic of skills should not be required. If a student wishes to go through four years of college without adequate writing skills that should be his or her prerogative.

Our dislike for requirements seems not to be limited to the curriculum: this week’s College Council minutes report that a house representative “stated that his constituents think that students should have a choice whether or [sic] they want to compost their food waste.” If a student wishes his or her uneaten food to add to a landfill that also should be his or her prerogative.

From whence does the confidence to assert student curricular freedom derive? After all, a highly structured curriculum was the norm in a liberal arts education until very recently. Yet in an editorial last week, Seth Brown wrote without hesitation that “liberal arts educations are designed to let students pursue their own interests.” Why are we so certain that, within minimal limits, we ought to be able to shape our educations as we please?

Perhaps a sort of curricular pluralism is responsible for our confidence. There are many different, legitimate routes through the curriculum, someone might argue. It is solely the responsibility of each student to find an appropriate course of study. But are all routes legitimate? What if a student constructs a course of study that does not provide certain minimal skills of a traditional liberal arts education (e.g. the ability to write well)? Is anyone justified in correcting a student’s judgment? If the answer is no, why not? Why should any student have the right to fail in this regard?

To be less charitable, perhaps underlying all this assertion is the notion, bewailed by many, that a liberal arts education is just one more commodity that the American consumer can purchase. If we send in the check paying for our education, why should the College tell us precisely how to consume it? After all, Burger King, a thriving business, has only the most minimal requirements concerning eating etiquette (“No shirt, no shoes, no service”). If we choose to buy the privilege to take four years of classes, why should anyone tell us precisely which classes to take? If Williams is picky about its menu, prospective students will choose to attend institutions with less rigid curricula.

Do these suggestions really capture the essence of a liberal arts education? I certainly hope not. However, it does no good simply to assert that writing skills are crucially important. Students and faculty do not necessarily disagree on this point – any disagreement occurs at a more fundamental level, owing to differing conceptions of what a liberal arts education should be. In order to show that writing well (or anything else) is an essential part of a liberal arts education, someone, anyone, must show why the consumer model is mistaken. We are desperately in need of a more compelling vision of what a liberal arts education ought to be. What does it mean, in this context, for us to be properly educated?

The faculty members of this college (who, quite rightly, are responsible for the curriculum) presumably have no small interest, by virtue of their careers, in this question. I therefore urge the faculty to articulate precisely why writing well or experience of untraditional, non-western subject matter or any other requirement might be central to the very notion of a liberal arts education. These may seem to be very simple questions, questions we might answer for ourselves, but I suggest it is nevertheless incumbent upon the faculty to formulate explicit answers. Through an ensuing dialogue, Williams might be cured of its requirement phobia.