The curriculum isn't the problem

You can’t force students to be intellectually curious. Regardless of Trinity's requirements, Duke students will — if they so desire — find ways of gamifying, bending the rules and cheapening the intentions set out by the administration. To address this, we must recognize that all students exist on a spectrum from only wanting a degree to learning for the sake of it and that most of us land somewhere in between.

While I’d like to think I’d still go to college if it weren’t a near necessity for socioeconomic success these days, it’s naïve to believe that interest alone is why people come to a place like Duke. Ultimately, the classes we take are only one piece of the broader puzzle, and a complete overhaul of the generalized boxes we have to tick before receiving our diplomas may do more harm than good — or, likely, it won’t change much at all.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I like the current T-Reqs. The new plan, which the Arts & Sciences Council will vote on in April, focuses on taking two courses each in six categories, without the possibility for as much overlap and double-counting as the current requirements allow. A fellow columnist suggested a similar — but somewhat more rigid in terms of subjects rather than tags — building-block style proposal. Instead of allowing the mixing and matching of tagged subjects, students under these style curriculums must take a certain set total number of courses from each of several categories.

Even if this alternative method is adopted, I’m confident that future Duke students will continue to find novel methods for deflating the rigor of their coursework. We can probably chalk some of this up to Duke admitting intellectually incurious students, but that’s another issue. Perhaps when we’re told we must do something, we have a gut reaction to resist. In other words, it’s not the extent to which we agree with what we have to follow but that we have to follow a list of exigencies at all. Indeed, it’s in the spirit of the university for us students to bond over a mutual dislike of authority that we must reluctantly obey (see: tenting and line monitors).

Additionally, because there is a perception that students don’t care as much about learning for learning’s sake anymore, professors cater to those perceived wishes and help enable a reality in which they become inarguably true. I’ve discussed my distaste for new-wave pedagogy before, so I won’t rehash all of it here, but I will say that, as a student, I’m going to take a class as seriously as a professor takes it — respect is a two-way street. These days, it feels more challenging to find “rigorous” classes to take than “easy” ones — sure, the culpability for this isn’t singular, but students aren’t the ones laying out the course catalog.

What the current curriculum does give students, though, is a significant sense of freedom — if we so choose to use it — to chart one of any number of paths through the Trinity curriculum. Yes, people take advantage of this. For me — and I think a lot of other students — it has allowed our courses of study to explore disparate interests deeply. On the other hand, the curriculum allowed many people to graduate knowing a little about a lot of things or not much about anything at all.

I’ll admit there have been some gaps in my education. When I go to an art museum, I have no means of analyzing the pieces beyond saying which ones I think look pretty. Additionally, I still don’t understand why we can’t just print more money and not tell anyone about it. And don’t even try to solicit my opinion on any matters of geopolitical scale unless I can ask my brother how I’m “supposed to think about it” first. Is that a failure in my education, or just a side effect of being able to specialize?

Still, I’ve read James Joyce’s "Ulysses" in its entirety and can code a binary search tree in assembly language. I can almost guarantee that, under a less flexible curriculum, I simply would not have been able to double major in Computer Science and English, two subjects that have no overlapping courses but, when taken in concert, allowed me to satisfy nearly all of the T-Reqs with classes in which I was genuinely interested. The question Duke administrators must answer before overhauling Trinity’s curriculum is whether they want us to graduate as a jack of all trades or a master of a few.

I’d advocate for the latter. While something like Brown’s Open Curriculum would be a manifestation of this to the extreme, I don’t know that Duke students could handle that level of self-direction just yet. Under what we have now, with Modes of Inquiry and Areas of Knowledge, one can be pretty flexible within the existing constraints — it’s really up to the student how seriously they take their own education. Duke imposing stricter requirements on the curriculum isn’t going to suddenly make us all want to study Classics for the joy of it all if that passion doesn't already exist.

The main reasons for changing the current curriculum seem to be Trinity students’ gamification of completing the requirements and the lack of student interest in taking courses from specific departments, particularly those within humanities fields. To address that first point, even if students are trying to double or triple count T-Reqs, it’s not as though that decision is making them take fewer classes overall. We all still need the 34 credits to graduate. Choosing to assume the best in others, if we’re using those extra credits to take more courses in subjects related to our primary fields of study, then adding stricter requirements would actually stifle intellectual curiosity.

As for the hive-mind-like draw toward certain subjects and away from others, again, I come back to my first point: you can’t force intellectual curiosity. Creating stricter standards about which subjects students have to take inevitably breeds discontent. Don’t get me wrong, I think STEM students need to take non-STEM classes, and — contrary to another columnist’s take — non-STEM students should take at least a couple of STEM courses. That’s what liberal arts is, and that’s what we signed up for. But, more importantly than what we study, a liberal arts education should give us the tools to become more autonomous and capable of making decisions about our own paths, and a stricter curriculum is not the way to encourage self-determination.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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