When I first heard about the proposal to lower the number of distribution classes required, my gut reaction was somewhere along the lines of a primal scream. I understand Rice frequently undertakes discussions about changing the distribution requirements, and I realize these changes rarely occur. If they do, the most likely first step is to lower the number of distribution credits required, according to outgoing Duncan College Senator Jessica Hartz.
This is the wrong first step. This reduction sends entirely the wrong signal to the Rice community and prospective students who seek to join it. Our distribution requirements are already much looser than those of our peer institutions, many of which have much more specific courses to fulfill each distribution area. At Duke University, students in the college of arts and sciences must take at least two courses in five areas of inquiry, according to its website. Given the quantity of their major requirements, engineers typically have fewer general education requirements, a model that Rice could adopt as well by scaling back the number of distribution hours engineers must take.
Rather than lowering the number of credits required, Rice should begin by more clearly defining the goal of each distribution designation. Instead of lumping classes into three divisions, Rice should institute more specific requirements. For example, we could require that students take classes on foreign languages, technology and coding, literature and non-Western cultures. With more clearly defined topics and structures, distribution requirements would better serve their goal of “giving students a broad education beyond their major,” as defined by the Rice admissions website.
By requiring fewer breadth credits than its peer institutions, Rice shortchanges its students not only in their knowledge but also in their educational paradigm. Under the current model and the intense requirements placed on Rice engineering students, distribution credits too often become too low a priority. Since many Rice students intend to pursue graduate school, they are often reluctant to take classes outside of their strengths, worrying that taking a new class will hurt their GPA.
As both a history major and a human passionate about learning, it tortures my soul whenever I hear engineers recommending easy D1 classes to one another. As Peer Academic Advisers will quickly tell you, D1 requirements aren’t supposed to be easy; they should challenge you to explore interests beyond your major. But I’m not sure that’s the effect of our current distribution requirements.
It’s not just the humanities that suffer. Since Rice takes AP credit in D3 areas and my academic interests (and talents) lie squarely in the humanities and social sciences divisions, I can graduate from Rice without setting foot in a math or science course. At first, I was pretty excited about this, but my essay-heavy workload seems to swell my verbal capacities while allowing my math muscles to atrophy. Having heard Rice engineers tell me how hard their math classes are has made me pretty darn reluctant to enroll. Without a math requirement for humanities majors — or even classes that seem accessible — it seems unlikely that I’ll branch out significantly. Much as I struggled in high school calculus, I regret that taking derivatives and looking at mathematical models won’t be an integral part of my college experience. I didn’t come to Rice simply for a degree. I wanted to truly hone my intellectual capacities, and not just in my areas of strength.
On its website Rice calls itself a “comprehensive research university,” claiming to provide a “robust curriculum” and a holistic undergraduate experience that equips [its] students with the knowledge, skills and values to make a distinctive impact in the world.” While the vast resources and talented faculty make a holistic undergraduate education easily attainable, I don’t think it’s required for a Rice diploma, and it should be.