Chang: Discouragement in Distributives
By Lulu Chang, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, January 29, 2013
As a liberal arts institution, Dartmouth is committed to ensuring that its students achieve not only depth, but also breadth of learning during their tenure at the College. In order to create truly well-rounded individuals, it is not enough to simply take courses within a single area of study — instead, it is critical that all students experience a diverse array of courses. From ethics to engineering sciences, mathematics to medieval studies, Dartmouth boasts an astounding variety of classes from which eager students may pick and choose to form the most comprehensive learning program possible.
The plan seems simple enough — eight areas of study and three cultural specifications, which may be satisfied by 10 courses. While Dartmouth lauds its distributive requirements as flexible, the real problem lies not so much with the rule’s convenience, but rather with its artificiality. The distributives at the College are often perceived by students more as a burdensome prerequisite to graduation than as an opportunity to widen education. Though classes taken for the sake of fulfilling distributives have the potential of raising unanticipated and otherwise nonexistent interest in a subject, they also have the capacity to replace the discovery of learning with drudgery. It is time to reexamine the way in which Dartmouth approaches its liberal arts aspect and determine whether distributives really are the best way to go.
Because of the compulsory nature of the current methodology and students’ inevitable concern with their GPAs, when students are forced to take a course in an area that would remain otherwise unexplored they tend to look for the easiest way out. It is no secret that a “lay-up list” can be found every term, detailing the courses that will both fulfill a distributive and result in a solid grade without requiring much effort. Rather than instilling an honest and intrinsically motivated desire to learn something new, forcing students to take a Thought, Meaning and Value distributive, for instance, lends an obligatory character to the course that often has the capacity to overshadow the curiosity that should encourage students when choosing their classes.
Certainly, the hope is that students will stumble across a course that they might not have considered without the institutionalized requirements. And there is no doubt that this does happen — quite often, in fact. But the reality remains that the distributive system can also create an atmosphere that is plagued by boredom and inundated by disinterest, completely undermining its purpose. When students take classes because they have to and not because they want to, the incentive to fully engage themselves, and by extension, perform at their best, decreases. For efficient students, the most strategic course of action is to take the easiest or most uninvolved course possible. When an entire class is driven by the same mindset (“I need an easy way to fulfill a distributive”), the quality of the course inevitably suffers.
The manifestation of such a problem is painfully obvious. When the majority of students are looking at their computer screens instead of the professor, it is difficult to believe that anyone is paying much attention. The back of a lecture hall is always a fun place to play “What’s going on in the Facebook world?”
Another striking, and perhaps less obvious, detrimental effect of our current system lies in its inadvertent discouragement of exploring courses that, without the distributive label, might be surprisingly attractive to students. Within the first few terms at Dartmouth, getting distributives out of the way is the most commonly utilized strategy in picking courses. But once a particular distributive requirement is fulfilled, students sometimes no longer feel it necessary, or are in fact dissuaded, from taking another course that falls under the same distributive category. Even if it is in an entirely different field, a fear of redundancy or the necessity of completing other distributives prevents further truly organic exploration. While this may become less of a problem as students get older, seniority should not determine the quality of class that students allow themselves to take.
Though the existence of some form of distributive system is undoubtedly necessary, our present method is rather lacking. We need a dialogue regarding how best to improve its structure, and consequently, the overall quality of our education at Dartmouth. A liberal arts education should inspire a truly diverse and comprehensive mode of learning, not impose a sense of compulsion.