Thursday, March 22, 2012

Swamp Things (or, Common Curriculum Matters)

One of my students who works for the campus newspaper recently asked me if I "had any opinions about anything"—and if so, if I'd write a short column for the paper. My university has these things that are called "common curriculum" courses, required across (most) programs for graduation—basically, the common curriculum makes up the core of our idea of a liberal arts education. These courses are sometimes viewed as hindrances to getting through college, but I wanted to suggest some ways to think differently about them. So I wrote the following piece, which is at the Loyola Maroon website, but without all the Nietzschean italics I sometimes resort to; here's the original:


As registration for the Fall semester nears, I find myself having spirited conversations with my advisees about what classes to take, how their majors are shaping up, and so on.

A common anxiety that many students voice has to do with what they should be studying: what they should be majoring in, minoring in, and otherwise focusing on. And then, there are all those irksome common curriculum credits to get out of the way!

Such anxieties seem to stem from ambient concerns (often uttered by parents who are either writing tuition checks or co-signing loan papers) about the “investment” or “value” that is a college education, and whether or not it will “pay off” in the long run.

These financial ways of understanding college have always baffled me. Certainly, college costs money. Most things do. But your college education is not something that will ever pay off: you can’t sell it in one grand “buy out” deal, and it doesn’t gain interest over time. Or rather, the interest that you gain from your college education is precisely your life. Its rate of return is entirely up to you.

And this is why the common curriculum matters: it’s your life we’re talking about. College is about helping you become interesting—hopefully for the rest of your life. One idea that motivates the common curriculum is that it is helping you expand your mind and become a versatile thinker. It’s not just about checking off boxes on the way to a single, focused degree that will jettison you into a fabulously lucrative life.

If the common curriculum sometimes feels like it is slowing you down, that’s exactly what it’s meant to do. College is, to a certain extent, about getting bogged down in the mud and muck that is intellectual development. And it needs time to take place.

The common curriculum is perhaps the soupiest part of this boggy terrain, an uncertain expanse you have to plod though. But it’s also where you can learn to make surprising and imaginative connections between subjects. It’s where you might stumble upon things that you never knew could make your brain pop in such a way. (This is why, in many stories, wetlands are where the imagination takes flight; it’s also one reason why we should care about them.)

Rather than think about the common curriculum as an annoying obstacle or a morass, try to embrace it as precisely one of the reasons why you are fortunate to be at a liberal arts university.

And if you don’t have a major yet, or feel like you’re flailing around trying to get a grip—it’s okay! You have four years to perambulate around this spongy landscape, and to home in on a particular field of study. Your advisors are here to help. And as you go along, don’t stress out about how your courses are going to “add up” or “pay off” after you graduate. Instead, try to appreciate how your coursework is simply congealing.

When you have a difficult time explaining to your parents or friends at home how all your classes fit neatly together, take some comfort in knowing that your college education is doing just what it’s designed to do: be messy along the way.

I’m not saying that majors, degrees, or disciplinary knowledges are a farce; they provide wonderful structures and focusing mechanisms for analytic thought. As you get close to graduating, you’ll appreciate the composition, complexity, and integrity of whatever you end up majoring in.

Here, though, I have just wanted to take a few hundred words to speak up for the more abstract aspects of the common curriculum, and to turn some complaints, irritations, and gripes on their heads. Celebrate the common curriculum—and all the other ambiguous parts of your college education—as exactly why you are here.

You’re here to take courses that will bend your brain in new and strange ways. You’re here to be sometimes disoriented, and to get confused. You’re here to slow down.

These things are of inestimable value; or really, they go beyond value altogether. College isn’t about investing, accruing, or cashing out. It’s about sinking in.