The recent CUC proposal lowering distribution requirements offers an unnecessary solution to a non-problem. Less stringent distribution requirements fail to provide students with a well rounded liberal arts education, do not address problems with excessive major requirements and disincentivizes students from exploring other fields outside their major. Rice claims to uphold a commitment to the liberal arts and diversity of thought, yet lowering distribution requirements to the bare minimum necessary for accreditation sends the opposite signal. It indicates to students, both current and prospective, that Rice only cares about a rounded education because it looks good to prospective students, parents, and college rankings.
Rice must embrace the liberal arts we so often advertise in marketing materials. If we want to truly be the school we claim to be, there cannot be such a dismissal of distribution classes. Rice must actively cultivate the environment where an engineer, a biologist, an economist, a sociologist and a philosopher can sit at the same table and discuss issues from various perspectives. We must foster a cultural shift where students want to be intellectually curious. Students should be guided and incentivized to explore. Rice is hypocritical to simultaneously extol the virtues of a well-rounded education while requiring students to have less of one.
Less stringent distribution requirements fail to address the root of the problem with general education at Rice: excessive major requirements. When students are singularly focused on meeting the requirements of their major, they won't fully explore other fields. A huge disparity in major requirements exists between STEM majors and majors in the humanities and social sciences. A political science major requires 36 hours of classes, but a chemical engineering major requires 93 hours. For students with heavy major requirements, distribution requirements are an opportunity to do something different. Who is to say that decreasing the distribution requirement will not motivate departments to increase major requirements in fields that already demand so many hours? Overall, keeping the distribution requirement the same is vital to ensuring all students have the opportunity to explore subjects outside their major.
The pressure to double major also reduces a student’s ability to gain a liberal arts education, and decreasing the distribution requirement limits students’ ability to be introduced to different paradigms of thought, especially among those with double majors. On paper Rice can brag about how interdisciplinary we are with the number of double majors, but how often is that drive to double major a result of wanting each class to "count" toward a line on a resume? Especially at a STEM-heavy school like Rice, where STEM students are less motivated to take courses in non-STEM fields, it is the university’s duty to instill a value for the humanities and social sciences. Each student should be able to graduate with a firm grasp of the impact of their work on society. There is no way achieve this goal without being well-versed in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
Reducing the number of distribution classes will not have its intended effect. Students are not going to take a few more courses in fields outside their majors. Instead, students will either not take those classes at all or they will double down on courses within their field. Though the goal of increasing student autonomy is noble, it should not come at the cost of a core tenet of a Rice education. Further, the reduction of distribution requirements will be hard to undo if passed. By that point there is little hope to redeem the liberal arts core at Rice.
We at Rice are here for a diverse education and collaborative environment. We did not choose a school that silos knowledge but rather one where students come to appreciate critical thought and analysis between fields. This environment is unattainable without forcing students into courses outside of their primary fields, and the value gained from repeated exposure should not be put up to debate. If Rice wants to move toward a model of pure professional preparation, where every skill is directly related to a future career in one specific field, then advertise the university as such. Lowering distribution requirements moves Rice in that direction and signals that the liberal arts component of a Rice education is not a priority. We urge both students and the Faculty Senate to vote against resolutions supporting the proposed reduction.