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Brandeis’ new General Ed requirements will hurt future students

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

October 6, 2017

As the Class of 2018 Senator, I need to express my views concerning the new curriculum changes that the Senate will vote on this Sunday, which will be voted on by the Faculty Senate soon after. Last Sunday, a delegation from the Curriculum Committee came to answer the Senate’s questions concerning the new General Education requirements which will come into practice by the end of 2019. The curriculum will more overtly incorporate Brandeis’ mission of social justice into every degree by adding social justice oriented general education requirements. It will also require that students take certain life skills and wellness courses meant to teach them how to function well as adults and college students.

The Curriculum Committee explained the program is so far along in development that no substantive changes will be made. I was away from Brandeis for all of last year, so I was not present for many of the formative debates or sessions of student feedback. However, I feel that it is necessary to voice some opposition to a program that might pass with our vote of confidence with a decent margin. I intend not to have the curriculum changed, as it seems little can be done at this point, but to start a conversation.

Many of the requirements were not changed substantively, but instead renamed with very specific, long-winded titles such as “Differences in Justice in the World” or “Diversity and Inclusion Studies in the United States” or even “Foundational Literacies.” These changes seem to value colorful language over function. Many of these courses are sociology or cultural studies that can be found within the umbrellas of several different majors, few in the hard sciences (as one might expect). Why not Global Studies or American Studies requirements? It is not impossible to use more palatable, shorter titles. This, along with a lot of the other language, adds a level of pretension that does not need to exist. If anything, it turns away people who might expand their worldview through a liberal arts education. The changes are all consistent with the university’s mission, and it is in some ways a noble one. However, the new names for requirements feed into stereotypes about social justice, and people who have not been exposed to social justice issues might be turned off by the wordiness of the titles.
The life skills classes since much of it seems like information you could easily find on Google. The alcohol coaching, bystander training and other things that people are already introduced to in Orientation make sense, and maybe they should be emphasized there rather than taking up time that could be spent on classes. Maybe I am wrong to think that it is easy to find this information because I was blessed with teachers, family members and friends to guide me to know right from wrong in these areas before college, but I do believe that legal adults can usually figure out for themselves many of the skills taught in life skills courses. Paying for courses to be developed or hiring more staff might be redundant in the end.
Overall, pointing degrees in a specific direction in order to make them seem more ‘Brandeisian’ will not be helpful for marketing or for the students. Independent development of a perspective should be encouraged, and our university with its flexibility in degree programs and classes has so far offered that to so many students. Allowing students to grow into their own rather than coaching them along every step of the path may not be beneficial to our academic culture nor to our mission.

The culture the new requirements attempt to enforce is already embedded in university activities. I believe strengthening the culture of the campus outside of the classroom is the central issue that requires resources to address, not necessarily courses. This is the first time the program in its entirety has been revealed. I do not think it necessary for people to be guided down a specific path through all of their education. It takes away the ability for synthesis of different subjects and ideas and limits creativity. The fact that Brandeis wants to incorporate social justice is to more of its education is noble, but limiting academic creativity and students’ agency over their education is not the best way to achieve this goal. If the U.S. and elsewhere is to see justice for disadvantaged groups, it will take all of the unbridled creativity and the most diverse minds to come together. Pushing perspectives through specific requirements discourages that.

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