Albrecht: Dreading Distributives
Many people tout Dartmouth as one of the best schools in the country. In order to be accepted, students have to have shown an intense dedication to all of their studies throughout their prior education. Once at Dartmouth, we are held responsible for most aspects of our daily life: scheduling, eating, fulfilling academic and extracurricular obligations and so on. Most of our lives here are in our control. But, despite our proven achievements and general autonomy, we are still forced to satisfy certain distributive requirements even if they are completely outside of our academic interests.
The ethos behind distributive requirements is understandable. A balanced education is crucial for developing the critical thinking skills that will make each of us effective leaders. While that is a noble ideal, in practice distributive requirements burden students in their pursuit of some other goal — for instance, a degree in something they care about. Instead of being encouraged to truly engage and explore outside of their comfort zones, many students treat distributive requirements as something to be accomplished using the path of least resistance. You find the class with the best median for that QDS or talk to your friends about which TMV was the easiest to get through. The theoretical ideals behind distributives and students’ resultant motives just do not line up.
Furthermore, most students who gain admittance to Dartmouth are presumably already well-rounded. You cannot be a student at an Ivy League school if you failed all of your math and science courses or all of your English and history classes throughout your secondary education. No student here is completely ignorant as to what other paths of knowledge have to offer. Though I am firmly in the social science and humanities camp today, I took advanced placement math and science all throughout high school. I should not have to take classes in subjects I have been exposed to yet know I am not interested in due to prior experience. The same goes for STEM majors who suffered through years of AP or IB literature. College is the time to take our diverse education and utilize it in specific fields that we plan to pursue throughout the rest of our lives.
However, students should definitely have the option to explore and engage; most, if not all, students who come into Dartmouth with one idea of their life plan change it over and over again. It is the coercion of this exploration that creates the indifferent mentality described above. Yet, not all educational experiences are the same; there are some students coming into Dartmouth who are more well-rounded than others. The question then is how to rectify the desire for a balanced education without coercing students into stifling and ineffective distributive requirements.
I propose that Dartmouth should allow students to test out of distributive requirements through either on-campus placement exams or high school AP/IB credits. For those requirements that do not easily align with common AP/IB exams, students can take various exams based on the knowledge that distributives aim to instill. This could be accomplished through a choice among various exams covering the same distributive or through a single test based on some book or other resource. By allowing students to test out of distributives, Dartmouth can ensure that each graduate has sufficient knowledge in a variety of subjects without coercing students into fruitless classes.
No matter how grand a theory is, you have to pay attention to how it works in practice. Quite simply, Dartmouth’s distributive system does not adequately achieve its purported ideal of creating well-rounded students. Many students are already sufficiently well-rounded and are forced into unnecessary and redundant classes just to fill a distributive; many others are so involved in desired activities and classes that distributives become a checkbox to be filled in the least strenuous and intellectually emptiest way possible. Students who wish to explore outside of their major track are going to do so regardless of a distributive requirement, and I would argue that many students have that mindset. The use of coercion creates a sense of dread and dispassion that influences students to look at distributives as a finish line instead of the journey that Dartmouth intends it to be.