Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Devaluing the Humanities? How Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences' New Curriculum Proposal Discourages True Liberal Arts Education

By Marie CeskePublished January 1, 2017

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Aimed to give Arts and Sciences students more direction, Cornell's new curriculum proposal sacrifices the humanities and academic exploration.
On March 7, 2017, the College of Arts and Sciences released a curriculum proposal that changes undergraduate distribution requirements and effectively places a greater emphasis on the social sciences at the expense of the humanities. Currently, the college divides its social science, humanities, and arts classes into five categories: Cultural Analysis, Historical Analysis, Literature and the Arts, Knowledge, Cognition and Moral Reasoning, and Social and Behavioral Analysis. The new proposal, however, would eliminate the first four categories and group them all under "Humanistic Inquiry" and "Interdisciplinary Exploration." These distributions have traditionally been fulfilled by classes in History, English, Comparative Literature, Classics, and Philosophy, and merging them together fails to recognize the importance of their separate fields of inquiry and prominence on traditional liberal arts education. Additionally, the new proposal mandates that all students take two Social and Behavioral Analysis courses, which encompass departments such as Economics, Government, Psychology, and Information Sciences, effectively requiring students to establish a foundation more focused on the social sciences.

While the College remarks that "specialization should not come at the expense of breadth," and wants Arts and Sciences students to "gain knowledge and expertise in a range of fields and disciplines," the vague "Interdisciplinary Exploration" requirement potentially sacrifices the merits of some specialization. Insofar as the College values departmental autonomy and Arts and Sciences students ultimately must pursue a directed major, maintaining distinctions between disciplines and allowing students to fulfill requirements through specialized classes are important in helping students identify their specific interests. The College has already helped to promote interdisciplinarity through cross-listing courses, and thus the further merging of disciplines within required classes may ultimately be regressive and prevent students from learning how to apply knowledge within the different discourse communities of various departments.

Ultimately, in an attempt to give students within the college more freedom and direction, the College may inadvertently narrow academic exploration. The College has proposed as part of this plan that students must complete five of the eight distribution requirements within their first two years of study, and has restricted the types of classes which may apply towards these distributions. Instead of the current system, where upper-level courses are applicable, the proposal creates a "foundational" requirement that students may only count introductory courses toward distribution categories. It also allows certain foundational classes to count toward the freshman writing seminar requirement and eliminates these classes as separate forums, which currently place a distinct focus on the improvement, discussion, and celebration of writing. Believing that they are now redundant with foundational classes, it will eliminate the additional requirement that students take five elective courses not within their major or otherwise counted for distributions. Thus, the total number of the College's required courses drops from 21 to 16. These changes not only cram academic exploration within the first two years in a more restrictive range of course options, but also discourages intellectual curiosity throughout the course of one's college career. No longer requiring that students step outside of their chosen fields to consider courses purely out of interest may inhibit a more enriched college experience and may encourage the notion that every class must be taken to serve a distinct purpose.

Innovations in liberal arts curriculum are likely necessary to bolster the College's strength in the humanities, but this cannot occur at the sacrifice of traditional humanities subjects. Cornell is currently ranked number twenty-five in arts and humanities education among World Universities, which is lower than the University's overall ranking. While the construction of Klarman Hall, the first new humanities building on campus since 1905, was as an important step in re-invigorating interest, still only ten percent of the undergraduate study body pursues majors in these subjects; the most popular degrees remain in engineering and business. Especially after the recession and given the continual rise in the price of college, the Daily Sun reported substantial declines in the number of humanities degrees conferred from 2006 to 2011. While the proposed new humanities curricula may be an attempt to give the humanities greater direction and ease students' anxieties about the employability of their skills, there is a way for the College to fold more skill-based classes into traditional curriculum without uprooting the current system of distribution requirements and eliminating electives. It can instead offer more practical classes tailored toward Arts and Sciences students, bolster its Career Services Office, or work to bring more recruiters who value humanities majors to campus. It could also offer services such as ILR's office which helps match students directly with winter internships. Universally shifting its current system of liberal arts education toward the social sciences will not, however, help to strengthen the College or its departments, and may only lead to further devaluation of the humanities.