Commentary

The Liberal Arts in the Real World

August 05, 2016

Hamilton College
Hamilton College has set a new diversity requirement for its curriculum.

The addition of a "diversity requirement" to the curriculum at Hamilton College has gained considerable attention and prompted lively debate since it was announced in May. Starting in the fall of 2017, all students will be required to pass either a course or combination of courses that examine "structural and institutional hierarchies based on one or more of the social categories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and abilities/disabilities" to complete their concentration, Hamilton’s equivalent of a major.

The change is especially noteworthy at Hamilton because of the absence of traditional distribution requirements: Besides the classes that students needed for their concentration, they’d had to take only three writing-intensive classes and a qualitative and symbolic reasoning course, all of which could be fulfilled in a variety of disciplines. If you never wanted to take math again, you didn’t have to, or if you just hated literature, you’d never again have had to set foot in the English department.

And yet, as a Hamilton student who has very much enjoyed the freedom from requirements and was drawn to the college because of that freedom, I think the new rule represents an important and potentially transformative change.

In ancient Greece, the liberal arts were intended to produce the ideal citizen: a person of intelligence, with sensible moral judgment and the ability to reason. Today the purpose of an education on that model is to create a well-rounded student who can relate diverse fields of study and connect apparently disparate thoughts and ideas. What could be more in line with that model than the goals of the new diversity course requirement?

We modern-day liberal-arts students have the potential to connect different ideas so that they can be applied in different contexts.
At Hamilton, the lack of distribution requirements allows students to have more self-rule in choosing which classes to take. Theoretically, they should already be taking a range of classes within their concentration in order to become that well-rounded, ideal citizen whom the Greeks wanted their students to be.

We modern-day liberal-arts students are equipped with a variety of skills and experiences within our concentrations or majors (and, ideally, outside of them as well). We have the potential to connect different ideas so that they can be applied in different contexts.

Students in every concentration at Hamilton today, and at our peer liberal-arts institutions, can take classes that not only help us understand core disciplinary concepts but also understand how the material we are learning can be applied to seemingly unrelated situations in the larger community.

A student with a concentration in math, for example, can take a class that examines the statistical probability of social mobility of minorities. A physics major can explore how different ideologies and religions view topics like the creation of the universe. Every discipline can be connected to the goal of increased diversity at a college that recognizes its value.

In the fall of 2015, a student group calling itself The Movement sent Hamilton’s president a list of demands, including one that called for the curriculum to reflect "Hamilton’s mission statement to develop ‘students as human beings,’ as [Hamilton] prepare[s] them to make choices and accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic world of intellect and diversity."

The group’s list went on to say, "Hamilton needs a curriculum that values the importance of understanding issues revolving around systematic power dynamics and inequities. We demand the creation of Diversity Intensive courses."

The new rule is a direct response to this demand, and the college’s administration should be praised for working to address the petitioners’ concerns. To its credit, the faculty passed the proposal for the new course requirement by a vote of 80 to 19.

Hamilton recognizes that the "ability to write clearly and effectively is a core goal of a liberal arts education"; hence the three writing-intensive classes. It also values "the ability to identify, understand and use quantitative arguments in everyday contexts," so a requirement for a course in quantitative and symbolic reasoning was instituted. Valuing diversity and requiring students to study race, class, or gender identity is no different. All of these requirements will allow us to better connect and communicate with more people, and to help us gain a larger understanding of our field of study.

If my fellow students and I don’t gain a greater appreciation of diversity in our classrooms, we certainly aren’t going to learn it in our beloved but tiny, homogeneous Clinton, N.Y. I believe it is Hamilton’s job to teach its students about the blend of all the beautifully unique groups of people and cultures in our state, our country, our world. This new requirement is a welcome step toward that goal.

Henry Shuldiner, a sophomore at Hamilton College, has spent this summer as an editing intern at The Chronicle.