Growing Departmental Demands Threaten Liberal Arts Education


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One of the most notable dynamics of the modern workforce has been credential inflation: professions increasingly requiring education to enter. As Burton Bollag writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “When Brenda M. Coppard was studying occupational therapy in the late 1980s, a bachelor’s degree was the standard ticket to enter the profession. In the 1990s, a master’s degree was expected. Today, a doctorate is becoming the norm. We are seeing a very similar type of degree inflation here at Princeton, as the academic requirements increase to earn a degree. This dynamic threatens the integrity of a liberal arts education.

Princeton’s admissions website describes a liberal arts education as providing a “broad intellectual base in all manner of humanistic inquiry…exploring problems, ideas, and methods across the humanities and arts, as well as the sciences.” natural and social. University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 himself said, “I came to Princeton because I wanted a liberal arts education that would allow me to rigorously pursue multiple interests. The promise of a liberal arts education explores many disciplines, and having many course requirements hinders that exploration.

The best way to allow students to explore diverse academic interests is to allow AB program students to take any course that fulfills their 31 required courses with minimum requirements. Students will learn more when they take varied courses to explore their passions, not to meet arbitrary requirements.

Yet, unfortunately, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. In 2020, the Culture et Différence (CD) distribution requirement was added, bringing the number of requirements to eight. Exposure to the perspective of marginalized groups is important, but the University could have created the new CD requirement while eliminating another AB distribution requirement to avoid increasing the total number of requirements for obtaining the diploma.

More worryingly, the different departments seem to have increasing demands. The Rule of 12 prohibits AB students from taking more than 12 courses in a single department, not including the two departmental prerequisites. To complete a concentration, students generally must complete a minimum of eight departmental courses. Thus, the total number of departmental courts can be between eight and fourteen. Over time, I have seen the number of required courses for each department approach the maximum. We can see the changes by comparing the requirements in 2002 and 2022.

Let’s first look at the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). In 2002, no prerequisite courses were required. Here are the Ministry’s requirements: “Concentrators must take at least three courses at the school[…]. They must take at least three courses, at the 300 level or above, in one of the following departments: economics, history, politics and psychology, or sociology, plus at least three other social science courses. In addition, the school … has a requirement for ethics and quantitative analysis. In total, this represents 11 compulsory courses.

Today, SPIA has much more onerous requirements. There are four required prerequisites, seven core course requirements, and six additional elective courses with strict guidelines on how they must be distributed, for a total of 17 courses (SPIA dodges the rule of 12 by requiring courses in several departments). Additionally, SPIA now requires a cross-cultural or field experience requirement, which is typically completed over the summer.

Similarly, although the Department of Sociology required only eight courses in 2002, it now requires nine in 2022. An additional required course on claims and evidence in sociology, SOC 300, has been added. The Department of English required nine courses in 2002, but requires ten courses in 2022. The Department of Religion has also increased its requirements from eight to nine departments. In psychology, the eight departments have remained the same, but the number of prerequisites, which do not count for the departments, has increased from two to three. Similarly, Anthropology increased the number of required departments from eight to nine. In the Computer Science Department, the number of departments has remained the same at eight, but there are far more restrictions on how they should be distributed and the number of prerequisites required has increased.

Increasing the requirements of a course on its own may not seem like a lot, but in a school where students can take a limited number of courses, just one more prescribed course can have a big impact – and the trend shows that students have less and less freedom as to the courses they can choose.

The reason for this credential inflation is not hard to see: when students and administrators come up with new ideas to enrich the curriculum, they usually add them to all the existing requirements instead of replacing them. But it is a mistake. Increased demands cause more stress for students and restrict their freedom to pursue intellectual curiosity. We deserve the right to pursue the multiple interests that brought Eisgruber to Princeton in the first place.

Saad Mirza is a junior history major from Olean, NY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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