To my mind, the divisional requirements needed to graduate from Williams are some of the more concrete ways that the College puts its idea of the liberal arts into practice. By ensuring that every student takes a smattering of classes across the disciplines, the College hopes to produce the kind of graduates that are supposed to be the product of a liberal arts education. That means, first and foremost, ‘well rounded’ individuals, people with a wide-range of interests and talents, who will be able to confront a variety of unknown tasks in the future with alacrity and insight. In short, we are supposed to learn ‘how to think’ rather than what to think specifically.
I would argue, however, that the current divisional requirements (three courses each in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences/math) represent a fairly blunt instrument for the task. It’s just enough of a burden to be a serious pain without enabling students – in the case of a German major having to take a math class, say – to attain any kind of real and lasting mastery in a field. As much as I have genuinely enjoyed my non-major science courses, my intuition is that 90 percent of the people in my chemistry class (myself included) will struggle five years from now to remember whether two non-metals will form an ionic or covalent bond. I don’t believe that forcing students to gain superficial knowledge in fields radically outside of their major is what should be the goal of a liberal arts education. If it is, then we are condemning the idea to eventual extinction, because divisional requirements are an inefficient way of pursuing our goals.
There is a large emphasis on general education at the university level in America. The way we do things here is the exception, not the rule – and for good reason. It’s impossible for even the smartest people to learn even a fraction of everything there is to know. And specialization has the added virtue of being integral to modern life and, by extension, our future prospects of finding employment.
People at other institutions will have an advantage over liberal arts college students – however marginal – because they have been able to have more practice in their chosen field. That is not to say that we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. I do think that the American liberal arts model is really good at producing thoughtful and interesting people and that it does so by allowing students to explore more freely than other educational systems. But we should stop there. I believe that students are more likely to discover and follow their budding interests when they have fewer hoops to jump through and boxes to check in order to satisfy bureaucratic dicta.
We only get 32 chips to trade in for classes over the four years we have at Williams, and we should be trusted to use them wisely, because we were capable enough to gain admission to Williams in the first place. Ultimately, the only person who knows what you want out of your education is you. Some of us will never be able to write a punchy sentence. And some of us will never really be good at math. And that’s okay. Making it otherwise should not be the goal of a liberal arts education. Instead, its purpose should be to encourage students to cultivate a general diversity of genuine interests and to give them the space to think and develop those interests independently.
How should we go about doing this? I would start by getting rid of the divisional requirements, or at least altering them to make them less burdensome. A certain rival institution of Williams, which will remain unnamed, has done exactly that – and its students seem to be doing just fine. Of course, we shouldn’t stop offering classes targeted toward non-majors. Nor should students be prevented from exploring radically – quite the opposite. But relying on divisional requirements mistakes the heat for the fire and therefore fails to contribute meaningfully to its intended goal of producing interesting (and interested) people.
Spencer Flohr ’14 is an English major from Chambersburg, Penn. He lives in Perry.