Princeton has long been a leader in liberal arts education, and in today’s increasingly pre-professional world, the University stands strongly behind its goal of providing all students with a broad base of knowledge. While students often bemoan distribution requirements, these courses are crucial in guaranteeing that each one of us is exposed to a wide range of disciplines and ways of thinking. Sure, the system is not perfect, but requirements ensure that, by the time we walk through the FitzRandolph Gate, we will have had at least some practice reading literature, conducting science experiments and speaking a foreign language. This is certainly a worthy goal, and the requirements do a decent job of meeting it.
But the system is not perfect, and there are some ways it could be improved. A good place to start is with the Literature and the Arts requirement. The Board believes that, as it stands, the LA requirement is too broad. Instead, the LA requirement should be split into two separate requirements so that each student would take at least one course in literature and at least one in the arts, instead of two courses within this large category.
Under the current requirements, it is possible for a student to graduate from Princeton without ever having studied a piece of fiction or explored a work of art. The objective of distribution requirements is to ensure a well-rounded education, but the structure of the LA requirement undermines this because it allows students to take just arts courses or just literature courses. We believe that while literature and the arts are related, they are sufficiently different and offer students different critical skills, making them independently important. The skills that a student uses to analyze a text are certainly not the same ones that a student uses to critique a painting or a symphony; both skills are important components of a liberal arts education.
By splitting the current LA requirement into a literature requirement and an arts requirement, the University could further ensure that all students receive a comprehensive education without placing an extra burden on their schedules. In the past, two LA courses were required, so the number of distribution courses necessary for graduation would not change. In addition, both literature and arts courses can be found across a variety of departments, so selecting appealing courses that fulfill these requirements would not be difficult. The arts requirement, for example, could certainly be fulfilled in the art and archaeology department, but many courses in music, visual arts, dance and theater would also be satisfactory. And while literature may seem to indicate a course in the English department, there are dozens of courses in journalism, comparative literature, creative writing, American studies and East Asian studies that include significant literature components.
Unlike the core curriculum present at some schools, Princeton’s distribution requirements allow students a great deal of flexibility in choosing courses across disciplines. While the Board acknowledges that some students may use this flexibility to avoid seriously engaging with disciplines that do not interest them, we believe that most students engage seriously with a diverse array of fields. Splitting the LA requirement will not completely deter students who wish to avoid serious engagement with literature and art, but it will help encourage a broader exploration of the humanities for most students. This is a small change that will make a positive difference without placing a burden on students. Literature and the arts are important disciplines that offer valuable skills, and all Princeton students should have experience in both areas.
DISSENT: ZACH HORTON
Princeton’s distribution requirement system attempts to preserve what it fundamentally undermines. Distribution requirements were meant to expose students to a complete set of important disciplines. However, by granting students the license to choose from a whole host of courses — many only nominally connected to the discipline category — students can easily avoid getting the well-rounded education that the system was intended to provide. The Board rightly seeks to remedy the problem for the LA requirement, but, in reality, its solution can only do so much. After all, there already exist a plethora of courses for students who want to avoid engaging with tough literature or serious art.
I propose instead a hybridization between distribution requirements and a core curriculum. Each distribution requirement would come attached with either a single core course or choice of core courses. For distributions with two course requirements, the other requirement would be chosen just as they are chosen now. For example, to fulfill the LA requirement under this system, students might be required first to choose from one of six broad core literature/arts courses: American, European, or World (Literature or Art, respectively). Then, for the second LA requirement, students would freely choose however they wish (Children’s Literature, for instance). This hybrid system would better match the rigidity and academic rigor of a core curriculum with the flexibility and liberty of interests that broad distribution requirements encourage.