There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts model gives students a chance to explore a wide breadth of academic areas, meaning they can decide on a major through experience, rather than through parental pressure or other factors. I don’t envy my friends in Europe who have committed to studying one thing and one thing only, often running into trouble when they don’t find themselves actually enjoying their choice (I do, however, envy their tuition costs).
To make sure its students touch on different areas, Princeton has distribution requirements that we must take to graduate. At first glance, it all seems like a great mechanism for delivering the classic liberal arts experience. And the apparent sensibility of the requirements is strong enough that we rarely object.
The truth is that the requirements facilitate less of an intellectual exploration and more of a grocery checklist that we must complete before graduation.
The most obvious issue with the University’s checklist is that it is determined based on the academic preferences of administrators, preferences which are not necessarily correct. As an A.B. candidate, I must take: two Social Analysis classes, two Literature and Arts classes, two Science and Technology classes, one Quantitative Reasoning class, one Historical Analysis class, one Epistemology and Cognition class, and one Ethical Thought and Moral Values class. This list indicates a preference on the University’s part to put Social Analysis or Literature and Arts classes above history classes. Why should we accept this so readily? One can most certainly make the argument that history classes are more relevant to delivering a proper liberal arts experience than literature or arts classes, for example.
There is just no objective reason for a Princeton education to be dominated by SA and LA classes. There is no universal doctrine on what constitutes a proper liberal arts education from which the University derives this decision — the way these distribution requirements are crafted seems arbitrary.
This reminds me about the lab requirement, which I find the most absurd. I do not believe one needs a lab to experience the intellectual rigor of science, as science is a vast area that surely encompasses practical, lab-inclined practices but also the theoretical.
When university-level students who are not inclined towards practical sciences are forced to take a lab, we end up with classes like “Bridges” (CEE 102: Engineering in the Modern World). I’m sure the class is educational and I respect all the work the faculty has put into it, but the truth is, people take “Bridges” to fulfill a requirement: A.B.s take it to fulfill the STL requirement, and B.S.E.s take it to fulfill the LA requirement. The irony is funny. But if distribution requirements are causing students to take a class in which they have no interest, no passion, and no intention of working hard, then they are hindering the University’s core goal of facilitating higher learning.
I assume that the original, intended goal of these requirements is to deliver an all-encompassing education that intellectually challenges us on all fronts. The goal of these requirements should be to spur us into taking classes in new fields so that we may discover the breadth of our passions; instead, it is as if we take classes for the purpose of fulfilling these requirements. If we already know that our passion does not extend to a particular distribution area, then enforcing the distribution requirement is pointless. It will not lead to the discovery of a new passion, or an unexpected major.
In a practical sense, I suggest that the University adapt its system of distribution requirements to protect students from being forced to take classes in fields in which they already know they have no interest. Perhaps students should be able to elect one distribution area to omit. Perhaps a wide distribution of classes should be incentivized, but not enforced. Either way, the University should consider an alternative system that ensures its students are passionate about their studies, and that the resources of this great university are not wasted on classes taken for the sake of fulfilling a requirement.
Jan Domingo Alsina is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.