Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Distribution Requirements: An Investment?

Bryce McKayI hope some of you got as good a surprise as I did this week: After this semester, I will be finished with distribution requirements. Finally I will be able to concentrate on my major, take the classes I want and bring my GPA back up. What more could I ask for? I have been criticized in the past for over-generalizations about student sentiment, but I know there are students who had similar thoughts upon receiving similar news, because I spoken with some of them. We celebrated together.

The most favorable description of student sentiment about distribution requirements that I can think of is “indifferent.” Those students that don’t despise the requirements spend most of their time thinking about the easiest way to complete them.

Here’s an example: Students who are lucky enough to take astronomy with U.J. Sofia get to fulfill quantitative analysis and lab science with one class, and that’s a huge draw. Never mind that Sofia is a great professor, passionate about his subject: I’m in astronomy because of my quantitative analysis requirement. I don’t think I have to go out on a limb to assert that when you take a class purely because you have to, your investment and dedication to that class is probably sub-stellar.

All of that is a shame, according to my logical progression: Whitman is a liberal arts school, and liberal arts schools aim to present general knowledge, as opposed to specific, technical preparation for a career. I have always thought that this was because Whitman isn’t about learning things. It’s about learning how to think about things: how to challenge our perspectives and to deal with concepts that are controversial, or that run contrary to our beliefs. When we specialize according to building (I live in Maxey with the social science folk), we are circumventing the goal of imparting general knowledge and learning to think about only those things we deem “fit” or “interesting.” Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a liberal arts education?

But with all of that in mind: the high-minded ideal of the liberal arts education, et al.: what does one do? Can you choose to be interested in something? Can you foster an investment in astronomy when you’re majoring in politics and history? There may be parallels. There may be ways in which my political philosophy could be impacted by the earth’s collision with a meteorite that is multiple kilometers in diameter. I could write a paper on how Machiavelli would have an autocratic prince deal with the concept of such a catastrophe. Would the prince inform his people of their impending doom via massive hunk of rock? Would the people want to know? Or would the crippling sense of inadequacy that comes from addressing such questions best be addressed outside the realm of political philosophy?
I can’t offer answers to any of those questions. What I can do is re-introduce the high-minded ideal of a liberal arts education: The goal is to learn how to think about things (at least for me). So perhaps I should start thinking about the fear of irrelevance that comes from multi-kilometer meteorites (not to mention the difference between meteoroids, meteors and meteorites). Perhaps that is the only way the distribution requirements can actually work.

All this demonstrates one inherent problem within the requirements as they exist: The system allows me to circumvent it. This is especially relevant with respect to the alternative voices requirement. One has to assume that the alternative voices distribution requirement exists to force students to consider perspectives different from their own in an academic setting. (Tangent: Why doesn’t the course catalogue list a statement of purpose for any of the distribution requirements?) Let’s think about that with the context of the rest of the argument: Essentially, I can choose whatever “alternative voice” is most comfortable for me to experience. Isn’t that self-defeating?

As with so many other things, the concept of distribution requirements leads me to only one conclusion: We, as students, will get out exactly as much as we put into them. If we sincerely believe that a liberal arts education better prepares us for the real world, then shouldn’t we respect the implications of that? Shouldn’t we take classes outside of our major that will challenge us and teach us to think?

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