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The Dartmouth
February 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

What’s the Point of Liberal Arts School?

One writer asks Dartmouth students what they think about the College’s commitment to a liberal arts curriculum


“Be Extraordinary Here,” demands the homepage of the Dartmouth website. These words sit in the bottom left corner of the page, over a reel of students partaking in various campus activities and occupying all sorts of academic spaces. From working in labs to sketching portraits in BVAC or playing classical instruments in Faulkner recital hall, Dartmouth students do it all. 

Beneath the impressive slideshow is a description of Undergraduate Studies, boasting of the 40 departments and programs that comprise Dartmouth’s “liberal arts core.” This curriculum aims to help students “gain a deeper understanding of humanity and a broader view of what’s at stake for societies and throughout the world.” 

This mission is reflected in the numerous distributive and world culture requirements needed to graduate. But while the College emphasizes that all of these can be satisfied with 10 courses, that’s no small commitment for students whose majors are typically around 11 courses total without prerequisites. Dartmouth students already face the pressure of securing a lucrative career, so this begs the question: Is a demanding liberal arts education still worthwhile? 

I’m one of many students who came to Dartmouth as a prospective STEM major. After participating in my high school’s STEM academy for the past four years, I was confident in my decision to pursue engineering. However, after a freshman year filled with lackluster prerequisites, I decided to complete my LIT distributive requirement to break up the monotony in a productive way.

I took ENG 54.03, “Young Adult Literature,” a course that reignited my love for English that had lain dormant since middle school. This may have been partially due to the nostalgic syllabus content — “The Outsiders” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” anyone? — or simply having the opportunity to engage with what I formally considered a juvenile interest at a college level. 

Either way, by the end of my freshman year I was an aspiring English major and experimenting with other fields more seriously than ever. By fulfilling distributive requirements, I was able to reconnect with past interests and explore more avenues for my future. 

Leigh Smith ’23 had a similar experience. Smith, who initially planned to major in linguistics, switched to studio art after taking SART 1, “Drawing 1,” her sophomore spring. Since switching, she’s continued to be pleasantly surprised by classes within the department. “Because of the studio art major, I took [SART 16, “Sculpture 1.”] I absolutely loved that, and so I’m focusing on sculpture. I never would’ve expected that,” she said.

Samuel Ryan ’26, a prospective QSS major, is neither overly intimidated nor enthusiastic about completing his distributive requirements. 

“I just kind of see it as extra classes,” he explained. “I imagine it can take away from some people, especially engineers or pre-med [students] who have a bunch of prerequisites and then also distribs on top of that… [but] I don’t see it hindering my schedule.” 

The liberal arts curriculum didn’t play a role in Ryan’s decision to attend the College, he said. When asked if he had heard discussion about this topic amongst other freshmen, Ryan expressed that it wasn’t a major factor in choosing Dartmouth for most of his peers. 

“A couple of people I know who are engineers are kind of freaking out about it now,” he said. “But it didn’t really impact their decision to come here or not. I think they more so wanted to get in. And now they’re like, oh, I have to do this now.” 

On the contrary, Smith noted that two of the courses she had taken initially to fulfill distributive requirements — GERM 15, “Nazis, Neo Nazis, Antifa and the Others: Exploring Responses to the Nazi Past,” and Anthropology 41, “Human Evoultion” — ended up being standout courses in her Dartmouth career.

“I think most of my favorite classes at Dartmouth have been for distribs,” she said. “[German 15] introduced me to one of my favorite books. And [Anthropology 41] was a really interesting class that was a science distrib I just kind of took on a whim.” 

But does Smith think that these courses will benefit her in the future?

“I don’t know if [these courses] will have an impact on my career specifically, but I think it has shaped the way I look at the world,” she said. “The way I look at the course of history and societal issues.” 

In that regard, it seems that the College’s curriculum has been successful for students like Smith. However, she acknowledged that not everyone will have such a positive experience. 

“I have friends who are double majors who really struggled with the distribs. They get to senior year and the classes they have to take are super strict, and they have a lot less freedom,”  Smith said.

Jeff Liu ’23 is one of these students. A double major in computer science and mathematics, Liu found scheduling distributive requirements challenging. While initially in favor of the liberal arts system as a freshmen — and the prospect of  “reducing the amount of Mark Zuckerbergs we introduce into the world,” as he put it — his opinion has evolved over the past few years. 

“I learned that [the liberal arts curriculum] is more complicated and, in the vast majority of cases, you aren’t going to change a Mark Zuck by giving them more liberal arts classes,” Liu said. “I found that [required distributive courses] actually discourage the independent development of your education and force you into a box.” 

When asked if he’d recommend Dartmouth’s academic system to other students, Liu said that it was a complicated decision when considering financial factors — as many other colleges and universities have pre-professional programs that practically guarantee a post-graduation job offer.

“Ideally yes, but maybe not in the way Dartmouth does it,” he said. “It’s sometimes a privilege to actually learn things versus develop the economic potential to feed yourself. It doesn’t pay to know history and have better political takes.” 

However, Liu ended up finding critical value in his first-year seminar, which fulfilled a distributive requirement he did not need. Though Liu was chastised by an upperclassmen friend for this unstrategic class pick, he recounted learning a lot in the class. 

“An upperclassmen friend [said] I was dumb for doing that. They were right, because that put me a class behind and made my life so much harder. But it also opened me up to new political perspectives that I consider deeply important to who I am now,” Liu said. “[Distribs are] a choice for you to have an easier life or take things that will enrich you. ”