As much as I’ve enjoyed my time at Dartmouth, I’ve noticed something: Dartmouth does not have an intellectual culture. This is not to say the classes are not difficult or the students are not intelligent, but rather that our outlook on education is in severe disarray with the mission of the College. Higher education should be a privilege. It seems now, however, the educational goals of students have shifted to the following: Take the courses with the least work possible to get the highest grades possible with the littlest possible regard for learning.
I loved academia in high school. I soaked up knowledge in a way I cannot do now. I was almost certain I’d pursue further education after college and that I’d have ‘Dr.’ in front of my name someday. I expected to be a well-read scholar with an arsenal of liberal arts knowledge at my fingertips by the end of college. Fast forward four years, I am not pursuing this path, and I am no closer to being the scholar that I thought I would be. Rather, I’ve lost my proclivities for medical research and physics and have opted to work a nine-to-five industry job instead of pursuing academia. This is not to say changing your path is wrong — it is actually a good thing — but that for a majority of students, these path changes are neither toward academia, nor of an intellectual nature.
So what is the problem? Why has the zeitgeist shifted? We are a brilliant batch. We have world-class professors. We take fundamentally interesting classes. We have incredible amounts of funding to pursue what we want. What is it that makes us like this?
While there are a number of contributing factors, such as high industry salaries for the newly graduated or the College’s party culture, I believe the most significant factor is our course structure. When most Dartmouth students take three classes in 10-week academic terms, they are spread so thin that the goal of everything is to simply get the work done rather than to enjoy it. We skip class often, take each course for such a short amount of time and have so many assignments that all we can hope to accomplish is ‘get it done.’ The second something becomes an obligation rather than a privilege means we extract much less out of it. As a senior, I am often asked, “What is the best course you’ve taken at Dartmouth?” and my first thought is that I haven’t really enjoyed the courses here — which is a hard pill to swallow. I was too busy cutting corners to get good grades and too busy doing too much to enjoy any of it.
Dartmouth offers two things: a liberal arts education and its small class sizes. As a result, Dartmouth students have breadth of knowledge but little depth. Instead, let’s lean into that depth of what we can learn. I envision a system in which you take one class per term. That class becomes your life and your job. You’ll go to that class every day. That class will be much smaller than current classes. You’ll become an apprentice to your professor, forming a strong bond with an expert and learning a subject without the distraction of others. In this way, you can dive into it, get so much more out of it because it is the one thing you do. To maintain our liberal arts mission, students can supplement their main study with an elective: a smaller, low-commitment class students can take for fun. To avoid locking students into one track too early, we can also allow a freshman year course load similar to our current system so students can explore before choosing a major.
As for evidence of this working in modern education systems, we have it at our very own college. Students who take off-terms to fully pursue research do exactly this. They study one
thing for a whole term, entirely under one professor. There is also a school, Colorado College, which does this, and many students love it for the sheer immersion they get in each class. Some may take issue with this system because it is inherently more pre-professional due to the singular course focus and would undermine Dartmouth’s liberal arts mission. However, maybe this change isn’t such a bad thing. Resistance to change is something with which Dartmouth has historically struggled, and maybe letting go of the liberal arts is what it needs. Sure, liberal arts teaches us to be adaptable, which is an incredibly useful quality, but it is not a quality that is worth the cost of our intellectual curiosity. My proposed system may need some fine tuning, but I believe it can reestablish the intellectual culture upon which this college was founded. With it, students can produce thesis level work each term, form stronger bonds with professors and do the one thing they are meant to do here: learn.
William Toth is a member of the Class of 2023 and a computer science major. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.
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