A new learning model could reignite the academic passions of Dartmouth students.
As much as I have enjoyed my time at Dartmouth, I have noticed something: Dartmouth does not have a highbrow culture. This is not to say that the classes are not difficult or that the students are not intelligent, but rather that our perspective on education is in serious disarray with the mission of the College. Higher education should be a privilege. However, it now appears that the educational goals of students have shifted to the following: Take the courses with the least possible work to get the highest possible grades with the least possible interest in learning.
I loved the academy in high school. I absorbed the knowledge in a way that I can’t do now. I was almost certain that I would continue my education after college and that I would have ‘Dr.’ in front of my name one day. I expected to be a well-educated scholar with an arsenal of liberal arts knowledge at my fingertips by the end of college. Fast forward four years, I’m not following this path, and I’m no closer to being the scholar I thought I would be. Rather, I have lost my inclinations for medical research and physics and have chosen to work a nine-to-five industrial job instead of pursuing academia. This is not to say that changing your path is wrong, it is actually a good thing, but for most students, these path changes are not academic or intellectual in nature.
So what is the problem? Why has the spirit of the times changed? We are a brilliant lot. We have world class teachers. We take fundamentally interesting classes. We have incredible amounts of funds to achieve what we want. What is it that makes us like this?
While there are a number of contributing factors, such as high industry salaries for recent grads or college party culture, I believe the biggest factor is our course structure. When most Dartmouth students take three classes in 10-week academic terms, they are so spread out that the point of it all is simply to get the job done rather than enjoy it. We skip classes frequently, take each course for such a short period of time, and have so many homework assignments that all we can hope to accomplish is ‘get it done.’ The second something becomes an obligation instead of a privilege means we extract much less from it. In my senior year, I’m often asked, “What’s the best course you’ve ever taken at Dartmouth?” and my first thought is that I haven’t really enjoyed the courses here, which is a hard pill to swallow. I was too busy cutting corners to get good grades and too busy doing too much to enjoy it.
Dartmouth offers two things: a liberal arts education and its small classes. As a result, Dartmouth students have broad knowledge but little depth. Instead, let us lean into that depth of what we can learn. I envision a system where you take one class per term. That class becomes your life and your work. You will go to that class every day. That class will be much smaller than current classes. You will become an apprentice to your teacher, form a strong bond with an expert, and learn a subject without the distraction of others. This way, you can immerse yourself in it and get much more out of it because it’s the only thing you do. In keeping with our liberal arts mission, students can supplement their core study with an elective: a smaller, low-commitment class that students can take for fun. To avoid locking students into a track too early, we may also allow a freshman course load similar to our current system for students to explore before choosing a major.
As for the evidence of this functioning in modern educational systems, we have it in our own university. Students who take time off to devote themselves fully to research do exactly this. they study one
thing for a full term, entirely under one teacher. There is also a school, Colorado College, that does this, and many students love it because of the great immersion they get in each class. Some may disagree with this system because it is inherently more pre-professional due to the singular focus of the course and would undermine Dartmouth’s liberal arts mission. However, perhaps this change is not so bad. Resistance to change is something Dartmouth has historically struggled with, and perhaps what it needs to do is shelve the liberal arts. Sure, the liberal arts teach us to be adaptable, which is an incredibly useful quality, but it’s not a quality worth the cost of our intellectual curiosity. My proposed system may need some tweaking, but I believe it can restore the intellectual culture on which this university was founded. With it, students can produce thesis-level papers each term, form stronger bonds with professors, and do the only thing they’re here to do: learn.
William Toth is a member of the Class of 2023 and majors in computer science. Op-eds represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.
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