Having It Both Ways; or, In Which I Try to Get an American Liberal Arts Education

or, a rant in which I sound like an entitled Ivy League student (my apologies)

Last weekend, Tenured Radical (of whom I’m quite an enormous fan) posted a review of Louis Menand’s most recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas. Amid criticism of Menand’s views on interdisciplinarity which largely went over my head (when I submitted my application to the Princeton Program in American Studies, I certainly didn’t know this was what it meant to talk about interdisciplinarity!), I was struck by TR’s comments on Menand’s discussion of the general education curricula at liberal arts institutions. TR quotes Menand as saying that “A college’s general education curriculum, what the faculty chooses to require of everyone, is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy, even when the faculty chooses to require nothing”; she then goes on to say that she believes it “intellectually lazy not to have a core curriculum of some kind.” And when I read this I knew I had to write a post of my own in partial response. The thing is that I, in theory, would like to believe this too. I place great store in the values of liberal arts education and in the greater social necessity of cultural literacy across disciplines. I have the greatest fondness for the tradition in American higher education of balancing a higher-level general education with specialized training in a chosen field of concentration. And yet, as someone making my way through this system right now (indeed, I’m between my sophomore and junior years, having just declared my major three months ago: precisely on the cusp between general education and specialization), I want to talk about just how difficult it is to achieve this balance in the four years the American higher-ed system allots us, and how even those of us undergraduates most dedicated to the principles of liberal-arts education can find the system failing us. I find that while discussions like this often feature very productive dialogue between faculty, administrators, and other higher-ed professionals, they rarely involve a student perspective, and so I hope that mine as an undergraduate who genuinely wants to work hard and to see the system helping me out in my efforts to do so can be useful to the adults considering these questions of intellectual development.

I matriculated at Princeton in the fall of 2008, essentially starting my liberal-arts education from zero. Like a fairly significant number of my colleagues, my secondary education was at a large, public California high school: not one of the best in the state, located in an area whose high property taxes provide for smaller class sizes, lots of AP or IB classes, and arts programs; but a good-enough school with a small gifted program which was reasonably safe and sent a lot of its graduates to the local state universities. I’d had enough general education to get me the basics: AP English and history, the “honors” track in lab sciences, community-college calculus, a mishmash of largely self-taught French and Latin, and a few scattered classes here and there in music, theater, and computer programming (I also played the violin and viola outside of school for about ten years). However, while this level of education would have placed me out of nearly all my gen-ed requirements at a University of California campus, Princeton (like most other highly selective colleges and universities) doesn’t take transfer credit, and with good reason: Princeton’s 100-level math sequence is much more difficult than community-college calculus; a passing score on the AP French Language test placed me into the middle of the introductory French sequence. And, most relevantly, you cannot use AP scores or community-college credit to place out of Princeton’s “distribution requirements,” a system which labels nearly every course in the catalog with a subject area like “Literature and the Arts,” “Quantitative Reasoning,” or “Epistemology & Cognition,” and mandates that all undergraduates take one or two classes in each area, preferably in their first two years. In the fall of 2008, full of optimism and faith in liberal-arts education—and, critically, as yet without a major—I happily signed up for a freshman seminar in higher-education policy (Social Analysis), the French course into which I’d been placed (no distribution requirement), an easy computer-science class for non-scientists (Quantitative Reasoning), and the required freshman composition seminar, and I waited patiently for those first college classes to give me the university-level general education I knew that high school hadn’t.

But as I’m sure you’ve already guessed if you know anything about these things, it didn’t quite work that way, and my optimism and faith didn’t last long. Not only had I, heeding advice from my academic advisers to select a non-demanding course schedule, picked a joke of a programming class (known, unfortunately, as “emails for females,” and easier than the programming class I’d taken in high school) instead of something useful like social-science statistics or something challenging and rewarding like multivariable calculus, therefore demonstrating my innate lack of enthusiasm about the value of a rigorous general education, it also didn’t take long before my elective interests took precedence over my belief that the Princeton distribution requirements were for my own good. My first spring, I took courses in American history, British literature, American politics, and creative writing—including the ones which caused me to decide that I wanted to be a professional historian. I checked off my Literature and the Arts and Historical Analysis requirements, and I’ve gone on to fulfill them over and over again in the semesters since, choosing the upper-division seminars in history, English, and American studies that have been and continue to be one of the greatest sources of joy and fulfillment in my life. I’ve befriended my professors and become their research assistants; I’ve grown to love things I never before knew existed, like literary theory and cultural studies; and of course I have become convinced that I could not be happy without being able to stay engaged with texts and primary documents for the rest of my life—but I have never taken a single “real” college math or science class.

“Emails for Females” set the trend for my efforts to fulfill the requirements that come less easily. Last fall, to be honest, I put in just enough effort to pull a B in an anthropology course which satisfies the Science and Technology With Lab requirement; this fall (well into the second half of my college career, the part where I’m supposed to focus wholeheartedly on my major), I’m signed up to take an environmental sciences lab pass/fail—and I chose it, I’m ashamed to admit, because I thought it sounded fun, not because it will be an intellectual challenge. I’ve been scared of physics or math: scared of the appearance of the pass/fail indicator on my transcript, and indeed scared of failing. I am not good at math and science; if these quantitative indicators are worth anything, my math SAT score is far below the Princeton median. I would have to work very hard, putting in more hours than I put in for the classes which teach me the kind of work with which I want to spend the rest of my life, in order to pass physics or higher-level math. And so I’ve become a terrible liberal-arts student, picking and choosing the classes I want and not the classes that will make me a more well-rounded person and a better thinker. I feel as if I am being hypocritical and dishonest, as if I am lying to the high-school senior who thought for months that she would go to the University of Chicago for the Core.

But now I’m going to be a junior at Princeton, taking pass/fail a notoriously easy lab alongside three upper-division seminars in history and English, and can you blame me? One seminar is a requirement for my major, and promises to help me produce my first piece of required departmental independent work, a 30-page piece of original historiographical research; the other two are taught by two of the best professors in Princeton, whose opinions are some of those I value the most highly of anyone who has ever read and evaluated my academic work. Why, pragmatically speaking, would I want to limit the amount of time I can spend learning how to be the best historian I can be by spending hours trying to study for the notoriously difficult intro courses in physics, chemistry, or biology? There is no reason to think that my high-school science and math education (most of which I’ve forgotten by now) was sufficient to understand the conversations that my scientist and engineer friends have about their work; by rights I should be working to step outside my disciplinary box. But Princeton also expects me to write a senior thesis in a year, and so it is difficult to know where to focus my attentions. There are only so many hours in the week, and the system seems to force a choice between doing well across the general-education board and doing well in your discipline (which, naturally, entails a higher standard of mastery than does an introductory general-education curriculum). I’m a serious student, and spend very little time not working; I think I spent about three Saturday nights last academic year not doing homework. If I seem lazy about fulfilling requirements outside my comfort zone, or as if I am exaggerating this choice between my major field of study and my general education, I can’t think that it’s entirely my fault. I can’t think that I am to be blamed, entirely, for leaving my Epistemology & Cognition requirement till my senior year, my thesis year, because I am going abroad next spring. It can’t be just me. It must be the system too.

I am tempted to put the blame on my high-school education. After all, by the standards of the men who created Princeton’s earliest general education curricula, I am woefully undereducated. To be sure, there was much less to learn then, and particularly in the sciences, but it’s certain that in the fall of 2008 I would not have been able to pass the examinations once administered to incoming freshmen in literature, history, philosophy, and the classics. Of course, when those exams were required, a middle-class Jewish girl like me wouldn’t have been able to take them in the first place, and the wealthy young southern gentlemen who did take them tended to have the advantage of a private prep-school education. It was a system that perpetuated elitism in a disgusting and horrible way, and I am glad it no longer exists—but if incoming freshmen today were better read, perhaps we could consider ourselves generally educated and move on to the business of the major field of study. Perhaps wanting to do so wouldn’t make us bad mini-intellectuals.

It occurs to me that the British university system manages to get along just fine without requiring distribution requirements of its students, and perhaps that’s made easier by the GCSE and A-level system, which seems to teach to a higher level of proficiency than the American system does. However, I also understand that if you want to specialize early it is very easy to do so—no doubt if I’d been educated in the British system, the same temptations that have led me to drop serious math and science at Princeton would have led me to drop them at 16 in the UK. In reality, I think it must be as difficult to get a liberal-arts education in the UK as it is in America, if not more so. And while I strongly suspect that I might have come through the British system a better historian, that is only because the system is weighted so heavily towards specialization—I certainly wouldn’t have solved the Princeton problem of taking-the-easy-lab-for-the-requirement, and I certainly wouldn’t have moved beyond my disciplinary box.

To be sure, Princeton distribution requirements have so far pushed me to take one course which I wouldn’t have otherwise taken and for which I’m very grateful. The Ethical Thought & Moral Values requirement led me to continental political theory, and a basic understanding of Kant and Hegel—which I really did need a professor’s help to muddle through—has not only transformed how I engage with the British and American intellectual history I study, it has helped me to engage with my friends (and family members!) who study and talk about philosophy and theory; it has helped me to learn to write clearly about complex philosophical concepts; and it is valuable for its own sake. Educated people, I tell myself, have read Kant and Hegel, not to mention Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche. And I think of myself as a more literate and educated person for having struggled through those texts, which I hope I will remember as an experience at least as beneficial as the course I took which cemented my desire to become a historian.

But that was just one course, and pragmatically I could take the time to take political theory seriously in a way I can’t for fields with which I really struggle. In the end, in a system like Princeton’s, there is just not enough time in four years to become culturally literate and to achieve competency in your field. I want to be able to do both well, I really do. Between meeting all Princeton’s requirements and my own high standards, though, I don’t really feel as if either is going to happen. Not quite two years out from my thesis due date, I feel as if I could spend my entire life researching and writing that project and still not be able to turn in a project of sufficient quality or originality come May 2012—and forget my junior independent work, forget my departmental coursework, forget my semester abroad, and forget that one outstanding distribution requirement in Epistemology & Cognition which I’ll have to fulfill my senior year—probably through an easy course I’ll take pass/fail, because do I, grad-school-bound as I am, really want to reduce the amount of time I can spend on my thesis?

I have the sense that educators and administrators sometimes think that those who object to liberal-arts distribution requirements or core curricula just don’t want to do the work. Sometimes I see concerns about distribution requirements held up as evidence of the downfall of intellectual culture, as part of a package with students with entitlement issues who just want to pay for a 3.5 GPA or with students who think college is only important if it serves some sort of immediate and obvious vocational credentialing purpose. I think it’s worth thinking, however, about the fact that distribution requirements can reduce even the most serious students with the highest-minded educational ideals (and the most feminist principles!) to “Emails for Females,” and that a distribution-requirements system may not necessarily be the best way to help these students (who are not always innately skilled at choosing the courses which will challenge and reward them) get the best undergraduate education they possibly can.

4 thoughts on “Having It Both Ways; or, In Which I Try to Get an American Liberal Arts Education

  1. For what it’s worth, I have a lot of regrets about not using my distribution for something useful – now that I’m in grad school, it makes me a bit sad that I never bothered to take a proper literature class (LA) and wasted my ST on “rocks for jocks.” Of course, at the time, the prospect of working extra hard for something out of my SA box seemed unappealing.

    Also, I think you will find at Oxford that your English undergraduate friends’ jaws will drop with envy at the propect of being able to take classes outside your speciality. You’re right that specialization makes them more qualified – I probably don’t know as much as a second year undergrad in sociology at Oxford – but I think seeing the alternative to a liberal arts education will certainly make you appreciate the idea of liberal arts – if not its execution.

  2. I have a lot I’d like to say in response to this essay, if an older and (hopefully) wiser and not too sketchy grad student may interject. Much of this is from my personal experience, so YMMV.

    First of all, as someone who took an extremely focused program (Engineering Physics) in undergrad, and who had a grand total of three semester long free electives, I would say that you don’t know how lucky you are to be able and encouraged to take such a breadth of courses. It’s not about the knowledge – you are quite right that taking a physics course might not leave you with facts you ever use. The important thing you learn from distribution courses (if you select the right ones) is a new way of thinking. One of the most important insights I ever received from my B.A.Sc was that Engineers and physicists think in fundamentally different ways. An engineering professor, asked to justify an assumption, will appeal to physical intuition. A physics professor, asked the same question, will reply with a mathematical proof. Consider a question of the legal rights of a certain class of individuals. A historian, an economist, a logician, a lawyer, and a literary theorist would not merely reach different conclusions; they would actually be answering subtly (or not so subtly) different questions. Being able to navigate these mindsets is surely valuable to a historian.

    And the thing is, as an amazing professor of mine (in a Roman Law class, of all places) told me, in order to understand mathematics, you have to become a mathematician. You have to think hard and deeply about math problems. In order to understand Roman Law, you have to become a Roman lawyer. You have to think about the cases not in the abstract, but as actual legal disputes you need to use your legal tools to resolve.

    Which brings me to a bigger question: why take courses at all? I would say we take courses to learn something you couldn’t have learned without taking the course. In my case, I chose to study physics, despite being better at, and more passionate about, either economics or computer science, because I knew that the only way I would ever truly learn physics was to take hard, painful courses in it. The fact that I found computers and economics so fun and easy suggested to me that I could always learn them whenever I wanted to – so far, doing a PhD in Computer Engineering, with a minor in Public Policy at woody woo, I seem to have been right.

    You say: “Why, pragmatically speaking, would I want to limit the amount of time I can spend learning how to be the best historian I can be by spending hours trying to study for the notoriously difficult intro courses in physics, chemistry, or biology?”

    I would suggest the exact opposite. I think it is indisputable that you are going to become a first rate historian, no matter what training you have in undergrad. Grad school will teach you; and even if you never took grad school, the dedication you are putting into your craft right now shows that you could probably teach yourself. I would suggest that you are already a better and more interesting scholar than some who hold faculty positions.

    So stop obsessing over the thesis. Unless you’re Kagan, no one will ever read it. And if you’re a half decent historian (which you are) by the time you’re done your M.A. you will already have repudiated it (or refudiated :P it, if you are Sarah Palin). This is true no matter how hard you work now.

    Anyway this has been a really long comment. I hope it makes some sense.

  3. Thanks, both of you. It’s good to remember what a privilege it is to take courses outside one’s discipline at all. Daniel, you flatter me re: being a good historian, but I worry about this thesis in part because I want to be able to produce good history work, even if no one except my advisor and second reader read this piece of history work, and I would not feel comfortable turning in something that wasn’t my best work; in part because having a stellar writing sample is what will get me into a good history Ph.D. program, and so my professional dreams are somewhat contingent on putting a lot of effort into a top-level thesis; and in part because I couldn’t imagine that any other way I could spend my time could give me as much satisfaction. So in the end, the desire to work with history instead of with the subjects I am less drawn to comes down to selfishness at the expense of character-building, I suppose, but I can’t think that’s all bad.

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