Verbum Ultimum: Revitalizing Dartmouth
The College must constantly reexamine how it meets its mission.
In its current mission statement, Dartmouth declares its commitment to preparing students for “a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership,” qualities that have been integral to Dartmouth’s mission in one form or another since its founding. As a liberal arts college, Dartmouth achieves this by encouraging engagement with a wide range of subjects, often in intimate and dynamic contexts. In many ways, the College fulfills this successfully: Dartmouth has a student-to-faculty ratio of seven to one, boasts the highest participation rate in study abroad programs of any Ivy League institution as of 2014 and offers a plethora of opportunities for innovative learning and experience in and out of the classroom.
The current system, however, is not without its faults. In a rapidly changing world, the skills and education necessary for a truly effective liberal arts education are in flux. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to instill passion, adaptability and autonomy in students so they may live as free and thinking people. But the skills, knowledge and reasoning necessary for a successfully liberated person change with time. In this tempermental era, Dartmouth must adapt to changing environments by interrogating how it achieves its exceptional liberal arts education. There are timeless aspects of a Dartmouth education that cannot be sacrificed, but some details may require reexamination. To remain a premier destination for students, the College must recognize this reality and constantly recreate itself.
The first time many students are introduced to the liberal arts model is through the first-year writing courses and seminars. This system, adopted to introduce first-year students to college writing, offers a myriad of options for first-year students across almost every department at the College. Though this strategy at first seems amenable to the liberal arts model, in practice, the freshman writing course does not always meet expectations. In many courses at Dartmouth, professors feel compelled to give pointers on how to write well at the college level, a sign that some students remain underprepared even after their first-year writing courses.
Additionally, the divergent nature of first-year writing courses, which are taught by faculty from a variety of departments, may simply polarize students’ writing abilities further. A student interested in the sciences, for example, has the wonderful opportunity to learn basic writing skills in a writing course of their choice. But this focus on teaching writing through a particular academic area, if not implemented thoughtfully and with care, could provide students with an incomplete picture of the writing skills needed to succeed in a variety of disciplines. Similarly, students with deep experience in creative writing projects may segregate themselves away from more analytical compositions, making them woefully unprepared for work steeped in scientific language and style. Such balkanization is unacceptable for students as ostensibly dynamic as those Dartmouth takes pride in educating.
The College must question the role of first-year writing courses and seminars. Do the wide variety of courses available adequately prepare students to write, think and function in many dynamic contexts? Students will be expected in their time at Dartmouth and in life to be adroit consumers and producers of many types of writing and media; it is in the College’s interest to ensure that its graduates are able to navigate such tasks with ease.
After their first year, students at the College continue to be molded by the distributive requirements, the fundamental way through which the College ensures students partake in a liberal arts education. Spread across eight different classifications, students are required to take courses meant to impart understanding of the arts, scientific thinking, social analysis and global perspectives. The College attempts to deepen this final point, with debatable success, by implementing world culture requirements that mandate coursework studying western and non-western societies, as well as human culture and identity.
Adopted in 1994, the College’s current model for distributive requirements is laudable, yet risks antiquation. Dartmouth should again scrutinize its success in providing a liberal arts education in line with the skills necessary to live a truly free and enlightened life in the modern world. For example, in an era of increasing concern about identity and morality, the Systems and Traditions of Thought, Meaning and Value requirement may need to be expanded or reinterpreted. Under the status quo, a religion course and a course on political philosophy fulfill the same distributive requirement — does the College truly believe that these each fill the same intellectual niche? Similarly, the Social Analysis requirement covers topics from history to linguistics to sociology. A course on ancient Greek history teaches very different lessons than a course on sociolinguistics, yet the College treats them as equivalent. In its 1994 renovation, the number of distributive requirements was decreased in exchange for increased breadth of subject material per requirement. The College may again consider this idea as it reevaluates the realities that come with professional, personal and academic living in the 21st century.
Navigating the world of the 21st century, a time that will be dominated by technological advancements and social upheaval that will fundamentally alter the human condition, current and future students must be independent, critical and dynamic thinkers and actors. The College should consider the imperative of creating tomorrow’s global citizens more deeply and examine if the current model of distributive requirements meets the standards to which future generations will be held.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.