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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Schmitter-Emerson: Dartmouth Should Reevaluate Distributive Requirements

Dartmouth’s attempt to fulfill its liberal arts mission would benefit from modification.

This article is featured in the 2024 Green Key special issue.

My decision to attend Dartmouth was strongly influenced by the College’s acclaimed curricular diversity. I was surprised, therefore, to encounter pernicious cultural stigma against the ‘underwater basket-weaving’ courses. The colloquial ‘underwater basket-weaving’ trope refers to classes — predominantly offered in niche subsections of the arts and humanities — on topics people perceive as ‘less useful.’ Perhaps a vestige of the economic crisis of 2008, this attitude has given rise to the prestige-based primacy of the business or computer science degree. 

To remediate bias toward STEM subjects and encourage more experimentation, Dartmouth looks to ‘distributive,’ or general education, requirements. Distributives ensure that students take classes in a wide variety of disciplines outside of their majors, ranging from philosophy to Earth sciences. They engage students in broader academic pursuits and help fill class rosters in undersubscribed departments. However, this ‘fix’ remains a divisive one. I myself question the viability of distributives in helping students fulfill Dartmouth’s intellectual mission. Ultimately, while the requirements should be maintained, I think they warrant greater flexibility. It should be easier to petition them — or at least find alternative means to obtain distributive credit, such as research — when they become an obstacle to the broader learning experience.

For proponents of distributives, the requirements alleviate pressure to strictly adhere to the subjects with the highest post-graduation income. At a school as densely-populated with overachievers as Dartmouth, distributives create a healthy justification for students to take classes on the basis of passion, rather than utility. This is also true in situations where the student faces familial pressure to exclusively pursue the most lucrative subjects — for example, economics and computer science. For members of this camp, distributive requirements serve as institutional justification to take coursework unrelated to one’s future career path. 

Opponents of general education requirements, meanwhile, often argue that these courses are intellectually counterproductive. This argument is predicated on the assumption that, when presented with a challenge, students will clamor for the lowest-hanging fruit. In this scenario, humanities majors comb through Layup List — Dartmouth’s course review website — for the easiest STEM classes, and vice versa, irrespective of whether they are truly interested in the subject. Easier classes may disincentivize student engagement on the premise that a good grade will be guaranteed regardless. This defeats the purpose of distributives in the first place — to expand students’ intellectual passions. 

Admittedly, I’m no moralist when it comes to this issue. As a self-proclaimed humanities student, my first criteria for choosing classes to fulfill my quantitative and science requirements is the anticipated impact on my GPA. When the course election period rolls around, you’ll find me surfing the Layup List archives, gambling on whether a class’s A median will endure the test of the upcoming term. More often than I’d like to admit, I’ve chosen a STEM class on the basis that it has a final project rather than an exam, and I strongly doubt I’m alone in that. 

Yet the classes I’ve selected through this process have surprised me on more than one occasion. I took ASTR 001, “Solar Systems and Exoplanets,” because I caught wind of a rumor that it was one of the easiest STEM classes offered at Dartmouth. Surprisingly, I was more engaged in the course’s lectures than I have been in plenty of the humanities classes that I’ve chosen out of genuine interest. While the experience wasn’t epiphanic enough to change my major, taking an interesting STEM class in which I felt successful reaffirmed my confidence in my capabilities. I wrote myself off as a STEM student years ago, simply because I felt less accomplished within its disciplines, but the distributive requirements forced me to revisit and challenge that assumption. 

It’s hard to weigh the value of this realization against the humanities courses I have missed out on for the sake of fulfilling distributives, though. Out of genuine investment in maximizing my intellectual experience, I have mapped out each course I can take for the rest of my Dartmouth career. This process revealed to me that distributive requirements obstruct me from minoring in all the subjects I want to. Additionally, as someone who has a strong drive to go abroad and see the world as an independent exchange student, I have found it more difficult to receive transfer credit for distributive courses. This is partly due to the grading structure of exchange programs. Less conventional grading methods used at other institutions—namely, pass/fail—don’t qualify for distributive credit. It is also more difficult to create a rationale for transfer credit without a coherent intellectual narrative, and disparate classes fulfilling random distributives don’t lend themselves to coherence. This has been an inhibiting factor in where I can study, thus limiting the potential for my intellectual experiences outside of Hanover.

My proposed solution is granting students a little more autonomy when it comes to their requirements. I am in favor of maintaining distributives — but, in the event that distributives serve as an obstacle for pursuing existing passions, they should be a lot more flexible or petitionable. Dartmouth should offer waivers for each existing distributive, so that students can communicate with the registrar when the requirements preclude them from taking classes of real interest. These waivers would be located on the registrar’s website or on DartHub for easy access, and would provide a section for the student to explain the academic rationale for not fulfilling a requirement. It should also become easier to receive distributive credits through alternative means, such as conducting research or studying abroad. That way, students can devote more of their studies to what they are most passionate about, while still exposing themselves to new disciplines. 

For example, if a Biology major is interested in Comparative Literature but doesn’t want more courses conflicting with their pre-med track, it would spare them a lot of stress if they were able to research under a COLT professor for distributive credit — rather than take a class on the subject. Perhaps they would explore more novel subject areas if they didn’t feel so overburdened by layers upon layers of pre-med and distributive requirements.

Furthermore, more classes should qualify for multiple simultaneous distributive requirement credits. While it can be argued that this would narrow the breadth of classes that students explore through their distributives, it would prevent a logistical nightmare when it comes to laying out one’s D-Plan.

The idea behind distributives is a good one, but I think modifications should be made to its execution. It is critical that the Dartmouth administration stay aware of the practical impacts of its curriculum, rather than just the theoretical benefits. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.