Most students at Boston College shared a similar first take on the education we receive: we all heard the inspirational speech given by Rev. Michael Himes on the first day of freshman orientation in Robsham Theater, in which he underscored the importance of an undergraduate liberal arts education and highlighted what that education ought to include. Within the pithiness of the brilliant speech was the notion that the undergraduate experience is akin to a dialogue, a four-year “ongoing conversation,” in which the aggregate of our experience is the sum of all the consonance and dissonance of everything that we learn here. Himes highlighted a holistic, humanistic education, one driven by intrinsic motivation, that is, learning for the sake of learning and nothing else. Two years into my BC experience, I have learned that is not the case.
Assertion I: BC limits students in exploring their academic interests through the core curriculum.
Suppose a student wishes to pursue an interdisciplinary minor, as many students do at BC. Concerning interdisciplinary minors, the student handbook writes: “Students may use one core course or one course from their major toward the minor. Students carrying a double major are advised not to minor.” Conceivably, a student can successfully complete a double major along with a minor (and fulfill core requirements at that) in four years here at BC, assuming that he cross-counts courses.
Suppose a student wishes to pursue a double major in a science (i.e. biology) and a humanities discipline (i.e. English or history). He may cross-count courses to fulfill both the core and major requirements. For example, a course entitled “Law, Medicine, and Ethics” fulfills requirements for a biology degree as well as for a philosophy or theology core credit. Applying this framework, a student can also count that course for the Medical Humanities minor, a perfectly legitimate desire for someone interested in both the sciences and the humanities. This, however, becomes impossible because of the stipulation referenced above, the restriction on cross-counting courses. Students are forcibly torn away from their interests to pursue other aspects of the core.
A liberal arts education strives to make students “well-rounded” and to provide them with a “holistic” education. But there exists an abundance of useless core requirements that only interfere with learning. The “cultural diversity” requirement appeals to the new age apologist and liberal agenda and is in place primarily because of political correctness more than anything else. Political correctness dictates that BC “needs” an “African and African Diaspora studies” department, so it in turn must find professors to constitute this department. The placement of cultural diversity into the core curriculum specifically speaks to its unnecessary quality because the administration is well aware that if students are not forced to take the classes, then they will not. The same principle applies to the arts department, but I am more willing to accept its legitimacy than I am that of something like “cultural diversity.”
Amherst College is often considered the quintessential example of a small, elite liberal arts college. It does not require a core, and, in fact, students need not major in anything with general liberal arts degree the skills offers. The problem with mandating a core is that it implicitly means that a college selects students who they are not confident will appropriately and maturely take advantage of the classes offered. We are not trusted to pursue the diverse interests we have, and thus we are forced to do so. The administration watches over us like a frustrated parent hovers over a fourth grader who begrudgingly completes a math worksheet. Places like Amherst work because students are given the freedom to pursue what they want with no restrictions. They don’t need a babysitter, and they thrive without one.
Assertion II: The disparity between teacher difficulty makes course selection a game not of substance.
It is likely that BC’s Professor Evaluation Profile System (PEPs) is the single most frequented website when it comes to course selection. Researching teachers on its own absolutely has its merits, but the PEPs fixation at BC speaks to a broader reality that students choose courses based almost exclusively on the professor: that is the “game.” The substance and value of a course is subordinated to the difficulty of the instructor teaching it. A student worries about a difficult instructor, and reasonably so, because he does not want to get a “bad grade” or lower GPA. Using this logic, then, course selection can be predicated entirely on external motivation, assigning grades as the teleology of undergraduate education. There is no place for “learning for learning’s sake” within this framework.
Assertion III: The core curriculum allows people to escape requirements with “joke” classes.
Assuming the premise of a liberal arts education is to expose students to disciplines that they would otherwise avoid (for example, a student studying English may have an aversion to mathematics or science), then that also means putting students out of their proverbial academic “comfort zones.” Life teaches us that sometimes things are difficult, but that they must be done anyway.
Yet, the core curriculum even lets you escape this. Students who don’t really want to take mathematics don’t have to: they take “Ideas in Math.” Students who don’t want to take science, don’t have to: they can take “Geoscience.” It is a little unsettling hearing from friends of mine in these classes who’s grades in the high 90s and extra credit worth up to 40 exam points—academic cushions the average middle schooler doesn’t even have. This is a perversion of academic rigor and defaces the noble mission of the liberal arts, if BC stands by that mission of course.
Ultimately, how can anyone blame students for taking these courses? If one is offered a grade on a silver platter, why not take it? You’d be stupid not to do so. And therein lies the fundamental problem with college education: you simply cannot reconcile the broader imperative of societal utility (i.e. getting a job, going to graduate school) with the humble goal of learning for learning’s sake. If there is any redeeming aspect to a college education at all, it seems to me the only conceivable way of uncovering it is to strip BC of the core altogether.
The one qualification to be made is that what was discussed here is, of course, not limited to BC, and this specific university was just used as one example. Regardless, save $60,000. Go read a book. Travel. Because you’ll learn a hell of a lot more doing that than you will in college. Yet our world demands that we go to college. We need a liberal arts diploma.
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff