Column: The rotten core

By Sam Harding-Forrester

As that elaborate biannual expression of the academic hierarchy known as “class registration” draws to a close this week, I am yet again forced to contemplate a menacing spectre that has long haunted the educational experience at UIUC. All students, as Rousseau might have it, are born free; yet everywhere they find themselves mired in the cesspool of General Education requirements.

Now, I am not going to advocate the virtually requirement-free approach taken by Brown University, that muddle-headed free spirit of the Ivy League family. The commitment to produce students who are generalists as well as specialists is a valuable goal quintessential to an American college education. It derives from the great Core Curriculum programs of Columbia College, the University of Chicago and Harvard, among others. One must also acknowledge the importance of foreign language studies and the value of exploring the merits of diverse disciplines, no matter how sure one believes oneself to be of one’s future professional or academic interests. And loath as I am to concur with the cabal of hacks manning the National Review, there is much to be said for gaining a broad familiarity with the influential texts of the “Western tradition.”

Attempting to incorporate such carefully designed programs into the sprawling bureaucracy of our Big Ten university, however, is like trying to model the chassis of an agricultural transport truck on that of a 1920 Rolls Royce. The result is a labyrinthine list of approved Gen Ed courses, apparently chosen to inflict maximal violence upon the intellectual integrity of the student’s course of study. An English major planning postgraduate study, and reluctant to put her GPA over a barrel by dabbling in a substantial physics course, might be compelled to complete her Natural Sciences and Technology requirements by subjecting herself to such edifying courses as “ASTR 230: Extraterrestrial Life,” “ATMS 120: Severe and Hazardous Weather,” or the exquisitely titled “ANSC 110: Life With Animals.” A dedicated student in Comparative Literature or Philosophy may find that his litany of upper-level courses in those disciplines are not included among the overwhelmingly general and introductory courses approved to fulfill Gen Ed requirements and will thus be forced to sign up for superficial overviews of the very field in which he has specialized.

Time that could have been spent in an advanced course on Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the politics of the modern Middle East, or recent developments in evolutionary theory is therefore instead devoted to the investigation of Martian amoebas or grimacing through an exasperated TA’s coddling reassurances that “Reading can be fun too!” Students watch hours of their lives, not to mention their hard-earned educational savings, be whittled away like so much Republican political capital, all the while surrounded by the steady, resigned crackle of neuronal apoptosis. This is nothing but intellectually impoverished tokenism masquerading as a “well-rounded” education.

Such merciless regimes tend to brook no opposition, and those hoping to substitute a more substantial but somewhat more specialized course for one of the offending Gen Eds will find a notable lack of helpful information in the University’s online literature. Instead, petitioners are forced to subject themselves to the tiresome exercise of face-to-face negotiations. These doomed souls will inevitably find their queries met with the cool resentment of the Bureaucratic Gaze.

The Gaze, an especially popular maneuver among bureaucrats, tends to silently communicate something like this: “So you think you’re special, huh? You think you’re better than the others, huh? You presume to transcend the system?” (If there is one thing bureaucrats hate, it is transcendence of the system.) Then, of course, follows the obligatory spoken-word component of the performance, delivered with a self-satisfied hint of sadistic precision as if cracking a whip across bound wrists: “I am afraid that your petition does not meet the requirements for General Education substitutions.”

It is high time that long-suffering students rose up to cast off the yoke of this academic oppression. And the Revolution, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, will not be standardized.

Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]