Yung: Reinventing Liberal Education

by Edwin Yung | 5/31/15 6:17pm

The proposal by the ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation has shaken the community with its argument that standards of grading at the College have become lax. College President Phil Hanlon has made academic rigor a pillar of his “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative, and last fall’s cheating scandal regarding “Sports, Ethics and Religion” left many wondering about our academic culture. How do we move forward from here?

I propose that a two-year liberal core curriculum be instituted for the Class of 2020 and all those that follow. Psychology professor Peter Tse made a similar point in his recent May 4 column, “Liberating Minds to the Core,” but I would go much farther than he does. This core curriculum will be classically inspired and highly demanding. It will include English literature, discrete mathematics and logic, classical and modern philosophy, history (including that of science and math), calculus, computer programming, economics, the arts, religion and fluency in a foreign language. Students would also take statistical and international classes in social science. The goal is to make every graduate a model citizen of which Aristotle and John Sloan Dickey would be proud. Students will take classes for their majors concurrently with this core curriculum, but most major material will be left for junior and senior year.

I admit that one could argue that in choosing colleges, students would not want to apply to an institution with a core curriculum. Why would an engineer, already saddled with many required classes, be interested in Victorian literature? Even Charles Murray of the Cato Institute, a champion of liberal education and the inspiration for this column, accepts that the percentage of college students who want to get a liberal education is likely less than 10 percent.

This argument, however, is counter to the College’s goal of educating the whole person — we are a liberal arts college, after all. Our current structure accepts this to some degree by mandating distributive requirements — but many aspects of a classical liberal education are sorely missed. Taking one year of foreign language classes barely meets any notion of fluency, and huge tracts of our civilization’s canon are overlooked for a Frankenstein’s monster grab-bag of miscellaneous classes. How could a student claim to have earned a bachelor’s degree without having to read the Bible and Constitution, understand confidence intervals or know the causes of the 2008 financial crisis? Most perverse of all, several “lay-up” classes — of which “Sports, Ethics and Religion” was widely considered to be — have arisen, which have become popular because of their ease and ability to fulfill distributive requirements. Instead of teaching us what it means to be a well-rounded human, distributives have become boxes to be checked. A core curriculum will end this phenomenon of purposely choosing “lay-up” classes, particularly for distributives.

There are ancillary benefits to removing distributive requirements and front-loading the core curriculum. First, the College will benefit from a shared academic experience that students, professors and alums from all majors can discuss, on campus places as diverse as the Green and a fraternity yard. Second, students will be allowed the breathing room to explore varied fields in a rigorous and standardized manner before deciding upon a major. As Don Knuth, the father of the analysis of computer algorithms, put it — “the classic phrase is that liberal education is to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

Additionally, this plan would solve the central tension in the ongoing grading debate between humanities and more technical majors. Notwithstanding the inherent difficulty in comparing grading practices between subjective and objective disciplines, it is an unspoken reality that many humanities departments in the College are undersubscribed and struggling. There are many reasons for this — the rise of globalization and technology, the burden of student debt loans and a slack economy often push students to more commercial majors. As a result, there are criticisms that humanities departments are forced to “bribe” students with higher class medians and individualized attention. This proposal will reenergize the humanities by acknowledging their central place in education.

I purposefully configured my proposal to capitalize on the College’s strengths. I chose Dartmouth because of its focus on undergraduate teaching, its small community and its leadership among liberal arts colleges. I believe that many prospective students would also be attracted to these strengths, and they will come in droves if they know that a challenging liberal education awaits them. The mission statement of the College calls on the administration and faculty to prepare students “for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership.” Can we all commit to these lofty standards, or are they nothing more than rhetoric?