Peoples & Cultures Requirement has value

To the Editor:

I was intrigued to read Seth Brown’s call for abolishing the Peoples and Cultures Requirement, particularly his imaginative reconstruction of its creation. Since I was chair of the committee (the Committee on Campus Race Relations, precursor of the CDC) that came up with the language that was ultimately adopted by the faculty in 1988, I thought I should respond. This was not an idea of administrators but of faculty and students. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, the language of the requirement was the work of a student member of the CCRR, Farhan Haq.

We concluded that we could not say a student was liberally educated if he/she had taken no classes that dealt with the world outside of Europe or Americans other than European-Americans. Fortunately for us, we found that the vast majority of students – around 80 percent – were already fulfilling the requirement by their own choices. Perhaps Mr. Brown would say that such a requirement is “useless” since it demands that students do something they were already going to do anyhow. Far from being coercive as Mr. Brown suggests, the main impact has been to emphasize – to ourselves and everyone else – a central principle of liberal education as something we strongly endorsed in theory and practice.

Over ten years later, I believe the P&C requirement has worked well. Mr. Brown’s criticisms seem off the mark to me. It is difficult to imagine a requirement as “too narrow” when we include everything beyond Europe and beyond those in the United States who trace their origins to Europe. (In fact, Mr. Brown, wishing to cover his bases, admits this in his next section when he accuses the P&C curriculum of incoherence.)

And like all distribution requirements, it is too much to assume that one or two or three classes will single-handedly alter students’ lives. Division III classes cannot be expected to transform poets into scientific minds, any more than the P.E. requirement will change uncoordinated bookish nerds like me into athletes or even sports fans. The key phrase quoted by Mr. Brown is “help students begin to understand…cultural diversity.”

Finally, of course, liberal arts colleges are not, Mr. Brown’s claims notwithstanding, simply “designed to let students to pursue their own interests.” We may not have a core curriculum (at least not yet), but students do not accumulate a random selection of 32 courses for the degree, let alone a random selection of nine courses for the major. It is not only the College’s right, but its duty, to say what students should do in order to be certified, by their Williams B.A., as a liberally-educated person.

Timothy Cook

Professor of Political Science