Rethinking the Arts and Science Curriculum

Every 15-20 years, the College of Arts and Sciences evaluates and revises its curriculum. Last week, I attended a focus group discussing potential changes in the upcoming revision.

Currently, classes are categorized into KCM (Knowledge, Cognition and Moral Reasoning), CA (Cultural analysis), HA (Historical analysis), SBA (Social and Behavioral Analysis) and LA (Literature and the Arts).  We’re required to take 5 classes, satisfying atleast 4 of these categories. In addition, we have to take atleast one class focusing on non-European/north American geographies and one before the 1800s.

The alternatives we were presented with were:

1) Columbia style core
All undergraduates would be required to take classes focusing on foundational literary and philosophical texts and study art and music. While I am very attracted to that curriculum(perhaps so I won’t look like an idiot when I don’t recognize some famous Rembrandt painting), it seems to overlook pretty much all that’s not in the western canon. The elitism of western knowledge and art is what attracts me to this kind of core curriculum but it’s also what I am trying to overcome.

2) Cross Disciplinary Problem Solving
Classes focus on breadth and teach the multiple disciplines required to understand the central topic. For instance, a class on climate change might include anything from geography, global  development and politics, ethics and environmental chemistry to statistical analysis. Ideally, they would teach more professionally useful skills, while being true to the liberal arts. These sound very similar to the cross-disciplinary University courses currently offered. While they’re all very interesting, these courses are often not rigorous and are treated more like grade-booster courses. Modern curricula are moving away from being subject-less, to being topic-focused, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to approach the liberal arts.

I’ve confessed my commitment to the liberal arts several times on this blog. At the focus group, there were other equally passionate Arts and Science students. We shared our experiences and discussed the options proposed. If there wasn’t a time limit and if I didn’t have a class afterwards,  our group could have discussed the matter for hours. At the end, I left content with the current curriculum and also the fact that the college involved interested students at various levels in the revision committee and process.

A PE Class a Semester

During my very first pre-enroll in classes, I spent a lot of time on the Physical Education listings. Over a hundred classes are offered in nearly every sport/physical wellness each semester. I had never learnt to swim, so my first semester, I took beginning swimming. The next semester, I tried to take a yoga and meditation class called “Meditation and Relaxation” and utterly failed at it. The classes were on Tuesdays from 4-5:30pm, which was right before most of my evening prelims or project deadlines that semester. I’m still made fun of for failing a class on relaxation.

Sophomore year, I took meditation, and passed. I had to make up for my previous failure. Then I tried to take 8o’clock rock which is a essentially a morning workout class. Forget working out in the morning, I couldn’t even consistently wake up at 8 with my sophomore year CS major workload and late nights.

We only need 2 PEs for graduation, and since I had those, I decided to forget about the PEs. As a senior, I now have the luxury of taking a relatively light courseload and so I also took a PE called “Bootcamp”, which is a military style physical training class that meets twice a week for 1.5hours in the morning. I was also afraid that if I don’t find discipline to be physically fit while in college, I never might!

In Bootcamp, as the class description already warned us, the instructor pushes us hard (within safe limits) in strength and cardio training. I was in poor shape going into the class but by week 6, I was able to run 3 miles (in a timeframe I am still embarrassed of though) and do a decent number of push-ups. However, the hardest part of this class is not the workout itself. It is going to bed on time so I can get up in time for class, eating well so my body can keep up with the heavy workout, making sure I’m hydrated and showing up even when the weather is dreary. It has been a rewarding experience so far.

My very last pre-enroll at Cornell just passed and I made a long list of PEs I want to take. Ofcourse, I can’t take them all, so I only signed up for two. And that adds one more item to the list of “things I regret not doing at Cornell”: I regret not taking a PE each semester. That might also be my most sincere advice to underclassmen, to take a PE each semester.