Margot Besnard: At GW, students can grow personally and intellectually

This semester, I’m taking a class that meets in the Science and Engineering Hall. The first time I walked into the gleaming $275 million building, two people walked by carrying what looked like a laser or a part of a rocket ship. Even the bathroom, equipped with high-powered hand dryers and shimmering countertops, seemed futuristic.

The giddy feeling subsided when I sat down for class and remembered that I’m a political science major at GW, not a Jedi in a Star Wars movie. The course I’m taking is a small writing seminar on the evolution of political behavior, and we focus on philosophical questions about power, cooperation and what makes us human.

As thought-provoking as class discussions get, it’s hard not to look at the math equations on the whiteboard from the previous class and wonder if what we’re doing in my seminar – talking about morality and primates – will actually help us get jobs.

If you’re majoring in the social sciences or humanities, you might have doubts that sound like mine: Should I be learning more quantitative and technological skills? Every aspect of my life is connected to an iPhone app, after all, and my professors keep talking about “big data.” And why does Gelman have a 3-D printer?

When we’re learning about abstract concepts, it’s easy to fear we’re not gaining practical skills for the workforce. But I think it’s important for us to pause and think about the fundamental reasons why we have fears like these. By reflecting, we can see how our academic experiences really do fit into the broader vision GW has for its students to grow both personally and intellectually.

In a recent essay called “What’s the Point of College?” New York University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that there are two different visions of higher education: “utility” and “utopia.” In the “utility” vision, students go to college to gain marketable skills as quickly as possible. In the “utopia” vision, students go to college to think critically about their values and “test out their ideas in the campus community.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the education I’m getting at GW in terms of its utility and utopia aspects. At first glance, it might look like GW has only invested in utility for certain students – like those in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Milken Institute School of Public Health, which each have brand new buildings.

But the truth is, GW officials have invested in the school’s utility vision in ways that benefit students across all majors. Administrators took clear steps to improve efficiency and help students gain marketable skills when they built up career services, streamlined graduation requirements and started offering grants to allow students to gain real-world experience through unpaid summer internships that they couldn’t otherwise afford to complete.

It’s clear that GW has increased its focus on utility, but I’m also confident that utopia is still thriving. Utopia has guided my experience as a CCAS student, and I’m not alone – about one third of undergraduates major in the social sciences. In CCAS, the largest school for undergraduates, students take courses across the liberal arts spectrum. General education requirements are designed for students to engage in “active intellectual inquiry.”

Plus, on- and off-campus activism, student organizations and students’ success in the arts – along with GW’s new textile museum and acquisition of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design – also prove that GW is a place where students come to grow personally and intellectually. And donors often contribute to aspects of utopia, like scholarship funds and professorships – a sign they recognize that utopia was a valuable aspect of their own college experience.

When we question what the point of college really is, we gain a better understanding of GW as an institution along with a better understanding of ourselves. GW has the resources and opportunities for students to explore both utility and utopia. There’s no formula for the right balance of the two visions because every student is different, but it’s up to us to try some of both.

My academic experience aligns with GW’s utopia vision, and that’s OK. I value intellectual inquiry, and my University does, too. My fears about career readiness are natural, and there are ways I can be a part of GW’s utility vision without switching majors.

So when I start looking for a job, you won’t find me learning to use the 3-D printer – but you might bump into me at career services.

Margot Besnard, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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