What Should Graduates Know?

by Caleb Powers | 4/11/07 5:00am

Graduation is a time for extremes. Extremes of emotions (happy to be done; sad to leave), extremes of comfort (you're sweating in your gown; the Xanax addiction you developed recently to prepare for your cubicled job in New York has you feeling fine), and extremes of scent (the boot on your shoes from your last night of college vs. the chlorine in your hair).

Every year, a large group of Dartmouth seniors takes the college-required swim test the morning of commencement exercises in order to fulfill their requirements for a diploma. For these procrastinators, it's one last day of coerced silliness that the College forces upon them before its abilities in that regard are relegated to calls from Green Corp$. But for these seniors fresh off four years of college requirements, a swim test is as easy to swallow as the Twinkies that left them too fat as incoming freshmen to comfortably wear a swimsuit in front of their peers.

A senior friend of mine is currently finishing up an honors thesis as part of his double major. Already taking a full load of classes, he was told by the registrar at the beginning of spring term that he would not be allowed to graduate unless he fulfilled his SCI (science without lab) distributive requirement. Regardless of the fact that his thesis focuses on the pharmaceuticals industry and therefore has required a significant amount of scientific understanding, that such a clearly exceptional student might not graduate because of a capricious requirement intended to boost his educational experience seems crazy.

In theory, Dartmouth's distributive requirements seem like a good idea: A compromise between the rigid requirements of core curricula and the make-a-major-about-your-favorite-TV-show flexibility of schools like Brown with no requirements at all.

In practice, however, they have become merely a series of hoops through which Dartmouth students are required to jump. Effort goes into perusing course reviews and asking older students how to fulfill requirements with ease rather than into challenging ourselves in (perhaps) more interesting classes dominated by majors that would inevitably crush our GPAs. The current distributive system at Dartmouth is an example of a situation in which compromising between two good situations leads to a bad one. Like a dual sawmill/childcare center, the games to which this system leads are counterproductive and dangerous.

The distributive system is broken; a draw for the bright-eyed idealism of some incoming freshmen that is soon crushed by the pressures of time and grades that affect us all. It allows exactly the wrong amount of flexibility: Students finish requirements relatively easily but at the expense of lost time, effort, and growth. Is "The Technology of Sailing" important enough to an education to sacrifice a third of a term that could have otherwise been spent on inspired intellectual pursuit? Probably not.

The requirements of a Dartmouth education should be a central theme in this round of trustee elections. With so much talk about the College's identity as well as perceived identity, it's hard to believe they aren't already. The system is broken, but how do we fix it? Should we embrace the free-spirited, students-know-best mentality of our requirement-free peer institutions? Or, instead, should we create a standardized set of syllabi for a significant segment of a Dartmouth undergraduate education? How can we best preserve a well-rounded liberal arts education that looks as good in practice as it does on paper? The answers to these questions are as important to Dartmouth's identity as anything.

A core curriculum for Dartmouth wouldn't need to span four years of our educations like it does at some Western Civ-heavy schools. Instead, it could constitute a few classes for underclassmen that cover some basic information that Dartmouth wants all of its graduates to know: Survey courses in the liberal arts out of which students could test if they had received the material in high school. Maybe even something crazy like Technology of Sailing, if it's deemed to be important enough. But not a list of distributive areas for which many students just seek the easiest way out. Unless Dartmouth is prepared to allow students to elect the non-recording option for each distributive requirement, let individual departments decide on the necessary breadth of a student's experience, or to just require us to take a few courses outside of our own majors, this seems to be the best option.

Somewhere in Dartmouth's history, somebody decided that if you wanted to graduate you should know how to swim a lap in a pool. It's time we figure out what else graduates should know.

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