When I graduated from elementary school, my teacher asked me, in jest, if I had decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I looked at her solemnly, and said, “Yes, I have.” I had finally managed to narrow down my options, and I earnestly explained to her that after a great deal of thought, I’d decided that I wanted to be a novelist, poet, English teacher, lawyer, pianist, vet, zookeeper, actress, acrobat, tightrope walker and headmistress of Hogwarts. And still I worried that I was limiting myself to the bare minimum. By the time I arrived at the College, I had accumulated an even longer list of dreams to attain, and I hoped that a Williams education would guide me toward one particular goal and jettison the rest.
I have since been awed, and am very grateful for, the College’s uncanny ability to do the opposite. Rather than refining my interests and shrinking my cumbersome to-do list, it has already begun to stretch the spectrum of possibilities. At every juncture, we are encouraged to experiment, dabble in unexplored fields, make mistakes and chart our own academic course.
I have only encountered two constraints. One is time – and that can’t be helped. The second one, ironically, is a central feature of the College’s education that explicitly requires us to explore – the distribution requirements.
The requirements are fairly flexible, and far from onerous, but they structure our exploration in a way that could potentially compromise it. After the initial thrill of opening the course catalogue and perusing the stunning array of courses, I became frustrated by overlaps in class meeting times, considerations about eventually selecting and fulfilling a major, conflicts with other activities and dilemmas about creating the perfect combination of classes. Only then did the added necessity of taking at least three classes in each division become limiting. I was obliged to project into the future, contemplate when and how I would meet the requirements of each division and devise my curriculum accordingly. As a result, the distribution requirements added this extra dimension of complexity as I had to maneuver to satisfy them. I was forced to curb my instinct to rush into the classes I was most passionate about.
If the College were to eliminate distribution requirements, or lessen the number of mandatory classes per division, the few restraints imposed on our academic exploration would be wiped away. There is such a rich supply of information that surrounds us – pouring in from outside the classroom walls – that the majority of our exploration happens beyond the classroom. The College is constantly abuzz with activities, lectures, colloquiums, performances and club gatherings, all of which can profoundly move a student. Academic advisors guide us, departments host events and dinners, religious and cultural centers open up celebrations to the entire campus, every language table has a weekly lunch and organizations file through entry common rooms every Sunday night to introduce themselves and entice first-years to sign up for their events. In this flurry of activity, I have signed up for an unmanageable number of clubs, sat in on my friends’ classes simply to listen to their professors speak and been manipulated into attending meetings for clubs I never would have considered joining. I hadn’t written for my school newspaper in high school, but when I shuffled timidly into the Record’s office in the hopes of introducing myself and learning about journalism, I was welcomed warmly and given a chance to write an article. Now, to complicate matters, I have to add “journalist” to my list of potential dreams. This is the atmosphere of the College. In such an environment, we can never become complacent, or even begin to believe that we have learned and explored all that is worth knowing. Merely by the act of being here, and embracing a fraction of the available opportunities, we explore, and the distribution requirements become unnecessary – indeed, it hinders our exploration.
By no means should a student refrain from taking unfamiliar and challenging classes. I believe that the potential to discover a new passion lurks in nearly every class. But if, in an attempt to fulfill the requirements, we wind up in a class we do not enjoy, any interest or excitement that an engaging professor stirs up will dwindle as the semester drags on. On the other hand, a true underlying thirst for a class can make the hours of homework a constant pleasure. No matter how tired I am during the occasional homework marathon, my love for a class will always make the work worthwhile. The value of taking such classes and devoting ourselves to them far exceeds the value of sacrificing a class we find fascinating for the sake of taking a class that adheres to distribution requirements.
The typical Williams student is curious and venturesome enough to explore, both inside and outside the classroom, and the College gives us countless opportunities to do so. But it is limiting to abide by a certain formula when choosing classes. Without distribution requirements to compulsorily shape our curriculum, we might attain a greater depth of understanding of the subject matter we’re passionate about, rather than a superficial understanding of a range of classes that we have tepid interest in. We only have four years; outside the classroom, those four years can introduce an unimaginable range of new interests and experiences. Inside the classroom, though, with only four classes per semester, those years seem short and fleeting. When we are selecting classes, and have such maddening time limitations, it is far more rewarding to explore, without any additional restraints, all that the College offers us.
Becky Tseytkin ’15 is from New York, N.Y. She lives in Armstrong 4.