On “non-major” courses: What does a well-rounded education look like?

The fall 2017 semester is in the past, and that means I have successfully completed Drawing 100. During the 12 weeks of that class, I learned a lot, found a new way of seeing the world and, above all, made some pretty cool artwork. I am by no means a naturally gifted artist. On Day One of the course, I had no background knowledge at all, but by the end I had learned enough to create a final project of which I could feel proud and that I could enjoy. I was able to leave my comfort zone to discover a new passion that I had never before known because I am a Division III major.

This is not to say that one major is better than any other. I have tremendous respect for anyone who completes the nine to 11 courses in any one subject, learning so much of what that department has to offer. The difference is what happens when taking classes outside one’s major.

Take a brief glance into the Division III section of the course catalogue and a trend materializes: a clear dichotomy between courses designed for non-majors and for potential majors. In the course descriptions, phrases like “intended for the non-major” and “for the non-scientist” are mentioned in the blurbs of many 100-level classes, which are often numbered lower than the “introductory” offerings for majors and potential majors. However, Divisions I and II have no equivalent. There is no art class designed  “for the non-artist,” no history class “for the non-historian.” Taking a studio art class, I became an artist during those moments of class time and the truly bountiful associated homework, and I was addressed as such during class. Maybe not a promising young talent with the potential to change art as we know it, but an artist nonetheless.

Why, then, do we separate our scientists but not our musicians, our statisticians but not our philosophers? Division III subjects are not inherently harder than any others. In the fall of my first year, I took both an introductory English class and a physics class for potential majors. The English class was unquestionably more difficult for me.

Artificially separating “non-scientists” and “scientists” from each other creates problems for both groups.  First, “non-scientists” do not get a chance to really explore a Division III subject to its full potential. Instead of a challenging course outside their majors, “non-scientists” receive lesser versions of the subject being taught, often without the chance to advance in that subject because the course is not designed to provide adequate preparation for higher level classes. Additionally, students can provide insights into Division III subjects using knowledge from other departments. A music major may understand oscillatory harmonic motion because of the ways in which sound functions and creates resonance. A Spanish major may envision weather patterns in a new way through understanding the cultural implications of El Niño and La Niña in South America. Yet, because of this artificial segregation, all students suffer. Students primarily studying Divisions I and II do not get to use their insights in this way, and students studying primarily Division III subjects miss out on hearing these insights in class and while doing coursework.

This interchange of knowledge and ideas has helped me in my courses at the College. From personal experience, I can say that viewing artistic foreshortening as an application of vector transformation helped my drawing skills immensely. The rest of the class also benefited from thinking about this concept from a new angle. Realizing the connection between these two seemingly different subjects was one of my most satisfying academic moments at the College so far.

The College strives to provide its students with a well-rounded education. If the way to provide that education is to have students take challenging classes across all three divisions, we should have students take classes that delve into the material in all three divisions, allowing everyone the chance to explore all the subjects and departments the College has to offer. For at least three out of 32 classes, let’s all be scientists.

Jacob Pesikoff ’20 is from Houston, Texas. He lives in Mark Hopkins.