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Letter to the Editor: Distribution learning matters

By Melody Tan     3/9/17 5:17pm

Given today's social and political climate, I find the opposition to distribution requirements and, by extension, liberal arts education highly concerning. It’s evident from current events that we desperately need a population with a deep appreciation of other cultures and religions to resist dangerous rhetoric and stereotypes. We need people who understand the realities of structural inequality to be the ones making decisions about welfare programs and the criminal justice system. We must be able to recognize valid research methods and interpret scientific data in the face of denial.

I say this while in my 7th year of bioengineering, which has included both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, work experience and my current PhD program. I love my field and support STEM education, but have become increasingly aware that the full spectrum of liberal arts education is necessary to add critical human and social context.

When asked about the most important classes I've taken, I think about Philosophy of Religion, where I learned to formulate arguments around the ideas of goodness and omnipotence and suffering. Those concepts were more challenging than anything I encountered in Thermodynamics or Transport Phenomena. In Medical Sociology I discovered food deserts close to the Rice/TMC area and got my first substantive breakdown of the Affordable Care Act, introducing me to the role of policy in determining health. Now, through my Social Inequality class, I'm learning about the historical drivers of inequality, and more problematically, understanding how I unknowingly benefit from the injustice.

Would I, as an undergrad engineer trying to juggle major requirements, extracurriculars, research and more, have taken all these courses if not for distribution requirements? Probably not, or fewer of them at the least. Yet years later, the lessons I learned in these classes still influence my life in every dimension, including the way I process the news, engage with the community and approach civic responsibility.

It's a mistake to assume someone will respond with critical, nuanced thinking when confronted with charged issues like immigration reform or foreign policy because he or she can work logically through an engineering design problem. We must train students, even those who don't immediately see the need, to learn how to think through these different frameworks. The distribution system isn't perfect, but it's a start.

Melody Tan is a Brown College alumna and a current PhD student in the Bioengineering department

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