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BIWEEKLY JOKES FOR EVERYDAY FOLKS | How Cornell Markets Liberal Arts

Photo courtesy of Cornell University website

It really is something to chuckle at, the way Cornell speaks about liberal arts. Specifically within the College of Arts and Sciences, there exists an issue with the rhetoric surrounding our breadth and depth requirements, which I argue stems from our grade-centered education.

Ideally, I would care much more about the quality of my education, about my intellectual growth each semester, than I do about my grades. Unfortunately, I am hyper aware of the importance of my grades—their influence on how others view and judge me—and their influence on my future. Whether or not I learn a lot in a class, I have been trained since high school to desire outside recognition of my accomplishments in that class. As a competitive person, this inculcated focus on grades has done well to motivate me. But it has also taken away from my appreciation of the ideas and concepts to which I am introduced in each course. Whether or not I look back on a class fondly depends, often, at least as much on my grade than on my interest in the material.

This is a trend visible not only at Cornell, or at Ivy League universities, but across the country’s schools. Students are preparing for the job market. They are preparing to compete with each other for their respective futures. Hence, students feel pressure to raise GPAs in an attempt to raise the chances to reach career and life goals. Grades become the center of higher education.

Cornell acknowledges this pressure. It understands that especially at a school with grade deflation, its students stress about scores. The College of Arts and Sciences, however, makes no attempt to remedy this trend. Instead, it allows rhetoric that runs counter to the goals it sets for itself and for its students. It even markets a type of liberal arts education centered on this type of grade-oriented selectivity.

I was walking past Olin the other day when I heard a tour guide say to his group of semi-interested high schoolers and actively listening parents—something along the lines of: “the College of Arts and Sciences has a bunch of requirements, but they are not too difficult to fulfill. For example, you have to take both historical analysis and mathematics classes to graduate, but for History majors who hate math, they could take a class like ‘The History of Mathematics’ to satisfy this requirement. And vice versa; for Math majors who dislike history, this class would satisfy that requirement, too.”

Look at these words! Tour guides are carefully selected, and their presentations are equally as thought through. These words should not be taken lightly, for they are part of how the school promotes itself to the world. These words acknowledge student desires; they show a significant level of understanding—on the University’s part—of how students think about choosing classes, as well as about their worries and concerns. Students decide based on interests and potential grades. Difficulty versus fascination is the trade off I, and we all, face.

Choosing classes to satisfy our Liberal Arts requirements should not involve this trade off.

On the Arts and Sciences website, the academic distribution requirements—the way in which students in the school experience and achieve their liberal arts education—are purported to give students:

  • familiarity with several different ways of knowing that are reflected in the various disciplines and fields of study within the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and sciences;
  • cultural breadth (both geographical and temporal);
  • effective writing and quantitative skills;
  • facility in a foreign language beyond the introductory level;
  • and imaginative and critical thinking.
  • Students are expected to concentrate on one particular field through which they develop their imaginative and critical thinking capacities. They must demonstrate a thorough grasp of their selected field.


Taking the “History of Math” to satisfy a math requirement will not give a student effective quantitative skills. Taking Oceanography to get an “easy A” for a science requirement will not make the student familiar with a scientific “way of knowing”. If the College truly wanted its students to have a “sensible, challenging, and appropriate” course of liberal arts study, it would encourage students to take courses where they learned for the sake of learning and for the sake of encountering new ideas.

There exists the danger that by allowing students to breeze through requirements by focusing on classes for their grades, these students will not be able to achieve the goals set forth by the College itself.

Well rounded students should be rewarded, but spikey ones should not be penalized for struggling with certain subjects. Instead they should be encouraged to try their best, without the fear that trying something new will result in a detrimental poor grade. Reducing the stigma of taking a class S/U, or making different breadth and depth requirements only S/U depending on your major or intended major, could be much more effective ways to get students to develop imaginative and critical thinking capacities.

The College’s acceptance of the heightened importance of grades, its acceptance of marketing requirements as easy or filled with loopholes, its acceptance of students’ desires not to make the most of a liberal arts education by truly pursuing new ideas—all of this shows a lack of imaginative and critical thinking on the part of Arts and Sciences itself.

And I hope this changes soon.

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