Lost on the intellectual path
November 30, 2010
There is nothing quite like sitting down to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. Whether you are alone or with friends, the experience is often cathartic and invigorating. Amid the bustle of tourists in Colonial Williamsburg, it is sometimes easy to forget that we are even on a college campus. Taking that 10-minute coffee break — at the Daily Grind, Aromas, Barnes & Noble or anywhere else — allows the opportunity to reflect and, in doing so, reconcile with the collegiate and cerebral lifestyle. If, however, therapy by coffee does not restore your academic focus, the looming presence of final exams will surely jolt you to your senses. Soon, students will remember that they are, in fact, at college. Earl Gregg Swem Library will become crowded, and a haze of cigarette smoke will smother its entrance. The campus will grow quiet as students spend their hours binging on information, only to remove it from their systems by regurgitating it later. This cram studying lifestyle raises two questions: Do final exams make sense? Do the General Education Requirements actually enrich students?
The purpose of final exams must first be examined. Final exams are meant to demonstrate the degree to which a student has mastered a subject, which in turn affects the grade he or she earns. For the most part, final exams fail to meet this purpose. The majority of students do not actually learn the material covered on their exams; rather, students merely store information temporarily in order to pass their exams and move on to the next semester. Obviously, this sort of practice is not the result of a system that places importance on actually mastering subjects. The most realistic solution would be to abolish midterms and finals in favor of regularly scheduled assessments. Without the comforting thought that they can put off studying for the final, students would recognize that each assessment is equally important to their grades. Therefore, they will exert consistent effort in order to succeed in their academic endeavors.
While abolishing midterms and finals would lead to an emphasis on learning rather than cramming, there would still be students who find ways to avoid actually learning and retaining the information from their classes. This apparent inevitability is a reflection of the failures of the GER curriculum. The GER curriculum, which aims to encourage (or more appropriately, force) students to experiment in a variety of academic fields, is outdated. Furthermore, it stifles their actual interests. High school provided every student with an in-depth experience in a variety of subjects, and it is during high school that students generally discover their affinities and weaknesses. Nonetheless, some students take longer to figure out what interests them. By reducing the scope of the GER curriculum, the College of William and Mary administration would be able to maintain the spirit of its focus in a liberal arts education, while simultaneously allowing students more freedom to discover their interests on their own. Downsizing the GER curriculum and language requirement would give student, who have gained an appreciation for a new subject, the opportunity to follow their interest and, in doing so, decide on their major or achieve a minor more easily.
Perhaps, the College administration should take a coffee break and assess the extent to which it is reaching its goal of sending students on the intellectual journey of a lifetime. Hopefully, it will recognize that the system needs some fine tuning. I recommend Starbucks’ seasonal Gingerbread Latte.