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Elizabeth Breitmeyer / Gavel Media

A Small Reflection on the Liberal Arts at BC

One of the things that are most heard on the Boston College campus is conversations about the core curriculum. It is something that every student goes through, making it the best conversation starter or a way to get through awkward interactions. But it can be more than that: it is part of the identity of BC’s liberal arts and an important part of our formation as individuals and professionals that will act in the world.

Within a lot of the discourse circulating around campus, a common question that arises is, “What's an easy class for x core?” For a school that has a strong and large core curriculum and markets itself as a liberal arts institution, it’s interesting to see how a lot of the student population actually seems to hate it.

The core is a set of requirements in different areas that constitute a big chunk of the academic life at the school. Out of the 120 credits necessary to graduate from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, 45 of them are part of the core curriculum. The requirements are in arts, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, theology, writing, literature, history, and cultural diversity.

The core curriculum, and BC’s academic foundation overall, are part of the liberal arts, which originate from 15th-century humanism. Initially focusing on the study of old texts and languages like Latin and Greek, the model of humanistic education soon became widespread throughout Europe. It was adopted by some religious individuals and the elite, sometimes in an attempt to consolidate cultural superiority and power. 

More specifically, the Jesuits were propagators of this educational system while on their mission to spread the Catholic faith around the globe. Their strategy was based on founding educational institutions like BC that seek to “make the whole person” and promote religious ideals.

It can be easy to forget that BC is a Jesuit institution on a day-to-day basis, but this identity permeates how the school operates and how its academics are structured. From the existence of the core to having religious professors teach classes, it shapes, slowly and subtly, the way students think and see the world. This can have an arguably positive impact on the discussions surrounding morality, values, ethics, and service to others, but it can also be a perpetuation of religious ideas and may be questioned in today’s world. 

Only a few of the big institutions in the country keep their religious roots as strongly as BC does, raising the question of whether this sort of education has become outdated or if it even makes sense. Are discussions surrounding religion, ethics, and morality relevant or necessary? 

The question of outdatedness also applies to the liberal arts. Even though the school made attempts to update the curriculum in the first half of the 2010s through the so-called Core Renewal (which brought forth a more multidisciplinary approach and more current topics), it doesn’t change the fact that the liberal arts form generalists in a world that seeks specialists—or at least that is what people say.

While some defend the idea of a more general and well-rounded education, data indicate that students have been looking for majors and classes through the lens of future employment and success. According to an article by Sean Smith, the most popular majors in this 22-23 academic year are finance, economics, biology, and political science. 

One important disclaimer is that, like all research into the opinions of a large group of people, it is impossible to fully and wholly grasp the opinions of all individuals. One cannot accurately generalize whether all, or even most, students enjoy dislike or the core (a sentiment I was looking for when starting to write the article).

“As a biology major, I want to spend the majority of my effort on biology-related topics so that I become more competitive when looking for a job, knowledge, and more research experience. And I think that taking sociology, for example, may be my passion, may be interesting, but from a utilitarian perspective it won’t benefit me,” explained a first-year Chinese international student. “When you are taking philosophy or theology for the first time, you suck at it. It will be very hard for me to get a good grade and affect my GPA. And when you are trying to apply to medical school and find a job it is going to look bad.”

This utilitarian approach to education is a common mentality around campus, which may be related to the desire for “easy core classes” and to the debate over whether the liberal arts are still valuable in today’s age.

My interview with a senior studying computer science revealed an opposing opinion. “People complain a lot, but I think it is a positive thing,” he said about the core curriculum. He told me that taking classes in philosophy, theology, and history helped open up his mind and gave him the opportunity to learn about things he would never think of otherwise. He entered BC as a business major but fell in love with the computer science classes he took for the core and now plans to work in software development after graduation.

He went on to say that in places without the opportunity to experience a range of subjects, “curiosity about other areas dies, which is kind of sad.”

And, when asked to give out advice to underclassmen, he stated: “Take the time to choose the classes you take… don't go after the core that's easier. I understand, but there's a lot of cool stuff you can learn. It's really worth choosing the things well, taking the time to pick the stuff you like. For the core, but for classes in general, take it seriously, take the time to study, ask questions, and learn things properly, not just memorize things for the test—which is a very constant thing in today's educational system. ”

In this sense, the liberal arts can be seen as an opportunity. It is a way to create, for those who seek and truly try, to expand consciousness and the field of vision of life beyond one’s own experiences.

This is the reality that a lot of college students are faced with: the tension between the pragmatic and the study of the self and the world in a deeper sense. 

On one hand lies the idea that the liberal arts may be a privilege as, even in their roots, the humanistic approach to education is elitist. In this way, does it make sense for the person who sees college as an opportunity for a degree and a job in the future, for a “good life,” to embrace the liberal arts and give up a chance for better professionalization?

On the other hand, developing oneself by studying a broad spectrum of subjects and understanding the traditions from which society has evolved may empower students to make changes. 

Perhaps the core is a way the student does not have to make the choice between “surviving” and “growing,” by forcefully pushing one to engage with the knowledge of the world and therefore lessen the tension. But its mandatory nature can make the whole system itself out of touch with the world.

Additionally, in a more panoramic view, there are a lot of discussions relating to education that have been in vogue recently: discussions around AI and Chat GPT, college admissions, financial crisis and Silicon Valley layoffs, and loss of interest in the humanities and rise of STEM and business. All the topics, even if at first seeming to be unrelated, are part of the broader movement of people and education for a more pragmatic way of thinking—as well as at times the questioning of the same mentality.

And, when looking at the ever-changing world and the discussions that have arisen in recent times, it is worth thinking carefully about the educational system in which all students find themselves and the individual student’s place in it. The skills required for our generation differ from those that were required before, yet the importance of critical thinking and creativity should not be forgotten by the fast-moving machine of progress. 

No one has the right prediction for the times we are moving into, but we as students need to create discussion surrounding the education system we live through, especially the unique academic experience we have here at BC.

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