Claire Autruong: Reimagining general requirements

I received an e-mail the other day from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences asking me to take a survey I couldn’t wait to fill out. If there’s one topic besides academic advising guaranteed to outrage a CCAS student, it’s General Curriculum Requirements. I’m no exception. After three years at GW, I had plenty of thoughts regarding GCRs to share, and I’m glad that CCAS has decided to take a look at the outdated and restrictive obligatory courses.

In re-evaluating the decades-old GCRs, CCAS should go back and evaluate the reason the requirements were created in the first place. The college’s Web site states that they were created “to ensure that all students (are) familiar with the breadth and diversity of the arts and sciences.””

Is that enough for GW’s largest school? A school whose mission, according to their Web site, to “(provide) the flexible skills and knowledge that will enable students to succeed as citizens of our increasingly complex and increasingly globalized world?” Familiarity is far from the same as relevant knowledge.

It’s worth remembering that most GW students come from high schools that have already stressed the importance of a well-rounded education as the first basic step in the college admissions game. For many, college is a place where they want to take control of their own educations and specialize in an area that will ideally become the core of their future, or at least represent their true interests. The current GCRs restrict students’ abilities to exceed the bare-minimum requirements in their major and to pick up second majors and minors.

They also vitally detract from the quality of the classroom community. As history professor and department chair Tyler Anbinder told The Hatchet in October, “There are students who don’t like history. I don’t want them in my class, as much as I think all people should take history.” Ten minutes in a vast lecture hall filled with fidgeting, apathetic students in an introductory biology course for non-majors is all it takes for a casual observer to conclude the same – students and professors are not better-served by the environment in compulsory courses.

Revamping the GCRs need not be a radical change. It could be as simple as standardizing the number of courses outside their major area that each student is required to take, like at Boston University and other similar schools. Majors would be classified into categories such as social sciences, natural sciences, humanities and mathematics. Under this model, students with a major in the natural sciences would be required to take a fixed amount of courses from the social sciences, humanities and mathematics, for instance.

The discourse should not end there. While the administration and faculty are taking a much-needed look at the GCRs, its time to examine what a GCR is supposed to accomplish in the first place. There is a disconnect between the mission of GCRs and the mission of the CCAS itself – one to provide ‘familiarity’ with the school’s many departments, and the other to produce a better, more-informed global citizen. GCRs should be an integral part of creating a more knowledgeable CCAS graduate.

For years now, the dean’s seminars for freshmen have been hitting the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to broadening student knowledge relevantly. Proposed dean’s seminars for this fall include “the science of terrorism” and “global media and democracy.” These types of courses are often lauded for providing freshmen access to top-notch faculty as well as providing interesting ways to fulfill GCRs, but they are also the crux of what a re-imagined general requirement should be.

The re-imagined GCRs should revolve around a curriculum with courses students want to take. They should revolve around courses that provide a solid foundation in established liberal arts principles, but that also challenge students to become knowledgeable about issues that affect the world we live in. I very much doubt non-science majors can muster up the same enthusiasm for learning about biology as for bio-terrorism.

I also very much doubt I would have mustered the same enthusiasm for slamming the current GCR system in that CCAS survey if I felt studying the glycosydic bonds in the tertiary structure of proteins was time well-spent.

The writer, a junior majoring in history, is The Hatchet’s copy editor.

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