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Not counting on Duke

When I graduate in a little more than a year, I will have Duke to thank for a plethora of valuable lessons that have been made available to me in the best ways possible. Math will not have been one of those lessons. 

My first year here, I quickly learned that my peers either excelled in the humanities or in math and science, but never both. It’s been rumored on the Duke meme page that Pratt students don’t actually know how to read, and while I marvel in those jokes, I’m pretty sure I’m losing the ability to count as time goes on. 

Addition with digits larger than ten takes me longer than I’d like to admit, and although I left high school with an understanding of basic biology, I now have genuinely no idea how anything biology, chemistry or physics related works. That is, other than knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. 

Duke’s Trinity School of Arts & Sciences supposedly has policies in place to combat this. Under the “Curriculum Philosophy” tab on Trinity’s website, Duke explains that “it is an important objective of the curriculum to expose Trinity College students to a broad array of course work in a variety of academic disciplines even as they concentrate their focus on the area of their major.” 

The “Areas of Knowledge” requirement, they guarantee, “insures this breadth of exposure to different ideas and approaches to learning.” 

I completely ignored all Trinity requirements until the second semester of my sophomore year, meaning my “breadth of exposure” stayed pretty limited to arts and humanities classes. And when I say pretty limited, I mean entirely limited. 

When it came time to expand my horizons and find more exposure to my breath, I of course had a deluge of math and science courses to pick from, and ended up settling for Compsci 101. My mother was thrilled. What a perfect way to learn a valuable skill, build up my resume and make myself more “adaptable” in preparation for my future career path. 

I lasted a week and a half before dropping the class on the last day of Drop/Add, joining instead a foreign policy in Latin America class that fulfilled one of the regional requirements for my ICS major. Oh, and another plus was that it wasn’t taught in a giant lecture hall with 400 students, 399 of which seemed to know exactly what they were doing while I sat there miserable and realized I’d never learn how to code. 

A 2016 article from Quartz explains that “two out of three developers are self-taught,” and those who skip the PhD to learn at home don’t necessarily get financially compensated for the extra time they spent in school. So I know that if I wanted to code, I could probably sit force myself to learn. 

But I haven’t forced myself, and probably won’t. And Duke certainly won’t either. Because instead of Compsci 101, I took another class that counted for a qualitative science credit that was undoubtedly a waste of everyone’s time. I’d say every year there’s a repertoire of five or six of these classes that are certifiably easy as can be, even for Trinity juniors who have regressed to using fingers to do math again. 

These are the classes we take to expand our “breadth” and graduate. The alternative is to take real science classes, something useful like compsci or statistics or maybe even actual mathematics, and take a whopping hit to our GPAs. And since these courses are already saturated by students who haven’t lost the ability to count, they’re practically guaranteed to be awful experiences. 

Duke’s curriculum isn’t the only one that uses requirements to make its students explore other subject areas, nor is it the harshest. Columbia University not only has science, global core, and foreign language requirements, and even a physical education requirement: “Successful completion of two Physical Education Activities is required. All students are also required to pass a swimming test or take beginning swimming for one term to fulfill the swimming requirement.” 

I guess it’s refreshing that Columbia deeply cares about preventing its students from ever drowning. But I also know deep down that if I was required to take a swimming class, I’d probably find one that took place in a kiddie pool and supplied us with floaties. 

It does make me sad and a bit concerned that I am losing a sharpness with numbers I once possessed; in high school, I was often top of my math classes. I used to love solving problems for homework in between the reading and writing I had to do, because doing math offered me a way to escape into a comforting alternate reality where everything had an answer and a straightforward explanation. Most other things in life do not offer such certainty. 

But at Duke, I very much had to pick my allegiance to either arts or sciences very quickly. I could not exist as someone with a respectable knowledge of both worlds; I had to be laughably terrible at one of them, either a member of the Trinity breed or of the endangered Pratt. 

And so, while I feel deep gratitude for all the things I have learned at Duke, please just don’t ask me to number them. Because I genuinely can’t count or add that well. 

Daniela Flamini is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


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