Yuan: Pointless Prerequisites

by Ziqin Yuan | 11/9/14 7:38pm

I am registered to take Art History 51, “Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism,” next term. I have studied art history in the past, but I have never taken any college introductory courses in the subject. I also do not expect to major in it. Most colleges would require prerequisites for higher-level art history courses, but Dartmouth does not. It is important that Dartmouth retains this lack of prerequisites, especially in its liberal arts and humanities classes, to encourage intellectual exploration and impart necessary social skills.

Certain departments should have prerequisites for all higher-level classes. In most math and science fields, students would not be able to appreciate or succeed in higher-level classes without a basic knowledge of general concepts. Dartmouth understands this, as many of these classes have prerequisites.

However, some classes do not depend much on prior knowledge. Most classes that do not require prerequisites are in the humanities and arts, allowing students who may not be majoring in those subjects to dabble without sacrificing major requirements. This is crucial, because students may struggle with finishing courses for their majors. The most popular major in the Class of 2013 was economics, with 210 majors; the next most popular subject, government, had 125 graduating majors. These majors require a fair number of courses on top of distributive requirements. If many Dartmouth courses required prerequisites, most students would not want to risk overwhelming themselves with extra classes just to take one course that they may enjoy. However, because many courses do not require prerequisites, students can freely take one or two that they are interested in.

Why is taking courses outside of one’s major so important? Many Dartmouth students will end up in technical fields such as finance and medicine. A recent Forbes article highlighted the importance of liberal arts skills in business. The liberal arts develop critical thinking and communication skills that help build relationships with colleagues. Roughly a third of Fortune 500 CEOs possess liberal arts degrees, like the founder of CNN and TBS and the CEO of American Express. Not requiring prerequisites for many courses mixes students who have prior experience in the subject with those who do not. Some may view this as a detriment; students with no experience may be disadvantaged and negatively affect the quality of discussion. While they may not add to the discussion the way that majors can, they bring new perspectives. Allowing people with no prior experience to take classes with majors in the subject helps limit groupthink that could occur when like-minded people are together. This adds dimension to classes and allows students from different disciplines to bring their unique ways of thinking together.

Similarly, allowing first-year students to take the same classes as seniors and majors helps first-year students build connections with upperclassmen. The smaller sizes of higher-level classes also encourage student-faculty relationships, which many first-year students do not receive in introductory courses and can help them find advisors.

By not requiring prerequisites for many courses, especially liberal arts and social science courses, Dartmouth allows students working toward various majors to gain the “people skills” liberal arts colleges provide even while working toward degrees in other fields. It allows students to improve skills that are necessary in almost every field and lets them encounter various viewpoints, creating more well-rounded graduates. One of Dartmouth’s most valuable attributes is that it offers a liberal arts education to students not majoring in the liberal arts, and not requiring prerequisites for liberal arts and social science courses maintains this quality. To ensure that students can continue to get this education, higher-level liberal arts courses should stay free of prerequisites.

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