Yale should renew its commitment to a broad liberal education.
I am deeply concerned about a trend toward specialization that dominates this university. Our system of education is designed around a tradition that encourages academic exploration and a broad acquaintance with the liberal arts. The distribution requirements are meant to promote exploration and understanding beyond the sphere of one’s major.
These principles of education are fundamentally sound and capture the importance of a broad understanding of disciplines that are relevant to life. But I believe that the current structure of the University and the attitude of its students, rather than promoting a broader exploration and understanding, inhibit it.
The most striking example of what I want to point out can be seen in the Group IV requirement. Students in the humanities feel that they are forced to take classes that they find hard and uninteresting in order to fulfill the requirement.
They choose the easy classes that they can take Credit/D/Fail and that assure them a passing grade. The flip side of this kind of attitude is an adjustment on the part of professors. For example, in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, only four of 25 classes were offered Credit/D/Fail this year.
Only one of these classes that was offered Credit/D/Fail is an introductory course. Professors who want their courses to be taken seriously do not offer them Credit/D/Fail because they are worried that students will not put in effort. These two sides of the coin are indicative of a philosophy that extends beyond the sciences and runs through the entire University.
It is hard to determine which side of the coin is responsible, but it is clear that both sides feed on each other. As students’ options are limited, they are forced to take classes that interest them less. This leads them to put in less effort. Decreasing student effort intensifies the pressure on professors to increase the difficulty of their courses and to force students to take them for grades. This adjustment discourages exploration, because the interesting classes become too hard and too competitive.
I believe the University must reaffirm its commitment to a broad and liberal education. It is the responsibility of the departments to offer engaging courses that are designed to introduce students to the subject material without forcing them to commit their sole focus to it.
Students cannot be expected to make the same commitment to classes outside their major that they make to classes inside it. Credit/D/Fail is the perfect way for a student to take a course for the sake of exploration, without having to devote the same commitment to it that would be expected of students taking the course in the major.
The University needs to review this change toward specialization and the steps it is unwittingly taking in the wrong direction. It must take action to stop this trend and to renew a commitment to the principles of a broad education. I believe that an increase in the number of courses offered Credit/D/Fail would be a step in the right direction and would catalyze a change in students’ attitudes toward the courses that they take outside their majors.
Change has to come from both sides, but it is the responsibility of the University to demonstrate a commitment to exploration and broad education in both philosophy and action.
Alex Rives is a sophomore in Trumbull College.