Shopping reveals flaws in distribution areas

I’ve never begun a column before by quoting old English poetry, and I may never do it again, so stay with me for a moment: “Before their eyes in sudden view appear/ The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark/ Illimitable ocean without bound,/ Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,/ And time and place are lost.”

Yes, that’s Milton describing what Satan sees when he looks out into Chaos, but substitute “we” for Satan and “shopping period” for Chaos, and it all begins to make much more sense. If you have stared at the online course selections over the last week, wondering which of the thousands of classes offered here will help you to uncover those “secrets of the hoary deep,” then you know something of the Dark Lord’s own struggle to dominate the universe. (And if you haven’t, you’re probably just enjoying your last moments of carefree grace before the fall, and the rest of us can bitterly envy you until midterms.)

Shopping period is at once a luxury and a nuisance, granting students flexible schedules even as coursework piles up. But it’s more than that. Shopping is a philosophy, and, like the best philosophies, it is both simple and profound. By allowing us to shop, Yale is saying that many different kinds of educations can be had in the same place. When seen from this perspective, it’s easy to knock the shopping system’s clear rival — the core curriculum — as giving too narrow a definition of what students should seek to get out of their college education. Plus, the higher powers of the Yale administration would say that the college’s distributional requirements allow every student to focus on a specific area of interest while exploring all major disciplines. It’s a perfect, middle-of-the-line approach.

Now that three quarters of the college fall under the new distributional requirements, we must begin to evaluate whether these requirements do, in fact, help students to make the most of this place and the many kinds of education it has to offer. And, after living with it for two years, I would argue that the distribution system as it exists now is falling short of giving students the diverse education it was designed to provide.

The base of the problem is a confusion with the educational philosophy behind the requirements. Unlike a core, the Yale curriculum offers a system of common exposure, not common knowledge. Everyone is expected to know a little of everything, and it’s not a problem that no one’s everything will be the same. Still, Yale shies away from giving students a coherent idea of what they need to know in an unfamiliar discipline, even as it declares that discipline necessary for an education. This paradox can make for frustrating courses in foreign disciplines that seem more like obstacles to an education than necessary components of one.

For example, consider the famous for-non-science-majors classes. The underlying theory — that students who open News columns by quoting Milton might not be ready for or interested in Orgo — is great, and much appreciated by this student. But after a look at the classes in the category, I gather that Yale really thinks that non-science majors should know astronomy, but not much else. Looking more broadly at science classes for majors and non-majors alike, I see some slim pickings around biology. And when I come to something that seems challenging but graspable — “Immunology and Microorganisms”! — it’s only for freshmen and sophomores.

Yale’s transition from its old system of requirement groups to the new distributional areas and skills has promise. But the system will remain only partially effective unless Yale is willing to examine whether it has given enough opportunities in each area for students of different disciplines to gain important knowledge there. An immediate step should be to change the format of certain introductory course offerings. There are many small seminars in the English department for students who are new to analytical reading and writing. Why shouldn’t there be a similar system in place for students who have little experience with the sciences? It would be a radical step — college science study tends to lend itself to large lecture halls — but a necessary one. Similarly, the introductory English seminars have many different topics, from the abstract (“Power and Resistance”) to the concrete (“The Working Poor”). Why, if I am looking for a non-major biology class, can I only choose from a couple of offerings?

It is to Yale’s credit that one can sift through so many course offerings to create a unique path. It would never have been possible in the past to combine a humanities major with a pre-med track, and I’m sure someone out there is doing DS along with performance art; best of luck to him. But if Yale truly wants to foster a broader base of knowledge in students who wouldn’t normally be so inclined, those in charge of course selections must go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make every distributional area a compelling part of a comprehensive education.

Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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