By MATTHEW SIMON
The term “liberal arts” has many definitions, but it most commonly refers to schools that study mathematics, the sciences, English, and philosophy—essentially the non-preprofessional subjects or what one might call “the academic fields.” These schools, as opposed to law or engineering schools, are not completely focused on preparing students to enter the job market. Rather, their focus is to develop students’ ability to think critically about an array of different themes and problems. Except for the small graduate program and a 3-2 engineering program, Colorado College is wholly a liberal arts institution. We have the ability to remain undecided about our major until the end of sophomore year and may take classes in all of the various departments.
The intention of a liberal arts college is to expose students to an array of different ideas, thought processes, and cultures so students will graduate as individuals who possess the composure and skills necessary to navigate the complexities of the adult world. Most liberal arts institutions achieve this goal by letting their students deliberate on a major until the end of their sophomore year, encouraging students to participate in a variety of different departments, and requiring students to complete general education requirements.
At CC, we have a slightly different version of general education, namely the critical perspectives requirement. This requirement includes two blocks each of a West in Time, a Scientific Investigation of the Natural World and language course, and one block each of a Quantitative Reasoning, Global Cultures, and Social Inequality course. The intention of these various critical perspectives courses is to give students a taste of an array of disciplines and expose students to ideas that the college sees as fundamental to the education of its students.
Despite best intentions, it seems to me that the critical perspectives requirements do not fulfill their intended goal. The requirements have become exactly that: just more requirements to be completed by graduation. In my experience, students view the critical perspectives requirements as a hurdle to overcome, rather than an opportunity to take advantage of. This is especially true for the West in Time requirement, which is notoriously despised by students.
I was fortunate enough to complete my West in Time during my FYE—two blocks full of philosophy, literature, and history—and I enjoyed both the professors and the material. Nevertheless, the majority of students seem to have the complete opposite experience with West in Time courses, in which they are often extremely bored with the class, especially considering that they are there for two blocks.
During the short period of time I have spent thus far at CC, I have heard a myriad complaints regarding the nuisance of the West in Time requirement, and I have yet to hear a positive review. I have not heard of a student who, because of their West in Time requirement, was exposed to material or a subject that they were fascinated by and wanted to explore further. This is not to say that these students do not exist, but rather that the downside of forcing every student to spend two blocks in a class they often have no interest in outweighs the benefits of having the occasional student discover a new-found interest through a West in Time course.
Even though the West in Time paints a sullen portrait of the critical perspectives requirements, there are many courses which fulfill these requirements that students enjoy taking. For instance, I am very much looking forward to taking a Global Cultures or Social Inequality block because I have little experience in those subjects and want to learn more about them. On the other hand, I still dread the Scientific Investigation of the Natural World as somebody who has no propensity towards the STEM fields and who lacks the mental capacity for handling a lab course.
Despite their best efforts, the college administration cannot successfully force students to develop an interest in the areas of study which the critical perspectives delve into. The general education requirements can only forcibly expose students to new material, and rarely do those requirements expose students to an area of study they never knew they would be interested in. I know students who had no dance experience, but still say their favorite class at CC was in the dance department. But their motivation to take that course came from interior motives, not from a schoo requirement.
A liberal arts education should be liberating, but in my experience, the critical perspectives requirements do the exact opposite of liberate; rather, they keep students from experimenting with unfamiliar courses and constrain their ability to successfully complete major or minor requirements on time. Despite the college’s best efforts, it seems to me that the current general education requirements CC has put forth fail in their intended goal of developing the fundamentals of a liberal arts education.