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ISSUE 117 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/5/2003

Priorities reflected by GEs

By Nick Nelson
Contributing Writer


Friday, December 5, 2003

The time of year has come and gone, once again, when we all look into our course catalogs and try to decide which classes to (attempt to) register for. Amidst all the grumbling about full classes and the Stone-Age registration system, perhaps attention should be drawn to St. Olaf’s own dramatic example of a good idea gone bad: the General Education (GE) and core requirements.

Currently, St. Olaf students are required to take courses in a variety of subject areas in order to graduate: four writing courses plus a first-year seminar, four cultural courses (two Western and two non-Western), a mathematical reasoning course, an intermediate language course (requiring up to four classes), a literary course, a fine-arts course, two theology courses, two natural science courses, an oral communications course (despite the lack of a communications department), a course in integrative ethics, two physical fitness classes, and two courses satisfying the “Human Behavioral Sciences” requirement. This represents, apparently, the minimum body of knowledge that this institution expects its graduates to possess, regardless of major.

Therein lies the good idea: St. Olaf, as a liberal arts college, feels obliged to give its students a “well-rounded” education. That is what every liberal-arts core curriculum is for. However, implementing a curriculum intended to produce well-rounded graduates is by no means a guarantee that the graduates will, in fact, achieve that status. There can be (and, of course, always are) individual students who just don’t care enough about the core courses to learn much from them.

No school can do much about this beyond carefully screening its applicants to ensure it is admitting students who really want a broad education. But there is another possible cause of liberal arts students graduating without being as liberated as their school intended: the curriculum itself, while implemented with the best of intentions, is faulty. This is St. Olaf’s problem.

Has anyone stopped to consider what some of these requirements actually reflect?For instance, math is accorded just one-fifth the importance of writing! Is this really what the college wants?

I was discussing taxes with a fellow student the other day, and he told me he was sure he would pay an accountant to file his returns because he couldn’t add or subtract well enough. He had not done any adding or subtracting since he finished his one and only math course some years back. Is this the kind of student St. Olaf wants to send into the world?

Also, the cultural studies requirements seem to be skewed, evidently in the direction of the “global perspective” that St. Olaf strives for. Now, this perspective is truly a wonderful goal, but how many students will go through life without appreciating allusions to Shakespeare or the stories told by the very windows of Boe Chapel (and countless other churches throughout the world) because the college required them instead to take a course in Aboriginal Religions or Chinese Women Writers?

For many students, gaining knowledge they may never use comes at the high price of having an impoverished cultural identity. No number of classes about another culture can substitute for familiarity with one’s own, and while St. Olaf is to be commended for its study of other ways of life, the college can surely do better in realizing that most of its students will live, work and retire in the West. The core curriculum should reflect that fact.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the variety of courses that satisfy a given requirement is far too large. It would be an interesting project to see what kind of arcane, hopelessly fragmented course of study a person could graduate with. If no one has done it yet, someone should.

Chinese Women Writers and the many hyper-specialized classes of its kind may be a fascinating topic of study, but I fail to see how accumulating a long list of credits with such a minute focus as this one makes a well-rounded graduate – unless you are planning to be in college for 25 years, in which case you could study the modern writers of every culture, and maybe even move on to some old ones.

The point is this: colleges and academics revel in their collections of specialized knowledge, and rightly so. Without very high levels of specialization, society would not be where it is now. But specialization is not the goal of a liberal arts college’s core curriculum – if it were, one could just divide up the college into the Institutes for This-and- Such and the Centers for Thus-and-So, and be done with the matter.

Rather, a liberal arts school attempts to give its students a general body of knowledge that will be applicable to their lives, no matter what they choose to do with them. With its current unbalanced requirements and overspecialized course offerings, St. Olaf is a long way from achieving that goal.


Staff Writer Nick Nelson is a junior from Owatonna, Minn. He majors in economics and mathematics.


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