The merits of liberal arts education are widely heralded at Princeton, but often we only pay lip service to the principle. In the past, we have written about how the current pass/D/fail system allows students to go through four years at Princeton without gaining any serious knowledge of the distribution areas. That editorial, however, underestimated the extent of the malaise which the current policy of distribution requirements suffers from.
The plethora of classes affectionately named "Physics for Poets," "Rocks for Jocks" and "Stars for Stoners" (the list goes on) reflects poorly on Princeton's commitment to producing well-rounded scholars. Many of the professors teaching introductory science classes for non-majors — which attract students interested in fulfilling a Science and Technology or Quantitative Reasoning requirement — water down the scientific aspects of their field. In place of math and scientific reasoning, many of these courses resort to a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on policy, aesthetics and, sometimes, pure drivel.
Our point is not that a multidisciplinary approach to learning and knowledge is bad. It certainly has its time and its place. Instead, we strongly believe that an astrophysics course which fails to teach its students astrophysics has failed in its mission. Course requirements are meaningless unless they correspond to classes that impart useful knowledge — not watered-down subject matter. This is not to assert that courses with less-than-rigorous reputations should be eliminated or that classes which are less subject-intensive should vanish from the course booklet. Those courses, however, should not offer an escape route from exposure to diverse distribution areas by fulfilling the requisites of non-majors without truly representing their respective department. Indeed, the point of a broad liberal arts education is to ensure that even non-mathematics majors should exhibit a baseline of math competency upon graduation. If this means that the grades of students who possess a strong background in humanities but a weak one in the sciences suffer, then so be it. If it requires that some students leave their intellectual comfort zones in order to be challenged, then all the better.
The University needs to evaluate the course descriptions of the classes it offers to meet distribution requirements, particularly in the sciences and math. It is currently doing the student body a disservice by making it easy to skirt challenging classes in subjects that students are reluctant to embrace.
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