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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Undergraduate college is about breadth, not depth

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

As a senior frighteningly close to his last semester at Brandeis, I recall one of the top reasons I decided to come here in the first place. At Brandeis I can take classes of all different kinds and rarely, if ever, have to take any classes I do not want. I have never hated a class here, even the few I only took for my major requirements. Majors at Brandeis are so flexible and university-wide requirements are frankly so superficial that, in addition to learning a lot, I have so far loved every lesson.

During my sophomore year, I started taking courses just for fun because it was so clear that I could finish a major—I have two, with a couple minors—with plenty of credit-hours to spare. I decided I wanted to double in politics and American studies very early-on and these majors include about the largest number of cross-listed classes as possible. But the vast majority of programs here at Brandeis, and no one needs more than one, allow for plenty just-for-fun classes. Here students can take classes that they never, ever would have taken without Brandeis’ liberal definitions on requirements and double-counting. I’m even taking a class in the mathematics department this semester—yes, math.

No matter the major here, students get to take classes beside those of the subject to which they are dedicating their lives and tuition dollars. A liberal arts education is about broadening the mind and Brandeis students can expose themselves to all types of pedagogies, teaching styles and subjects.

The amount of cross-listing opportunity, the small number of required classes for most majors and the lack of strict university requirements set Brandeis apart from other schools. Majors elsewhere may be aimed at intense study within one’s own field, increasingly focusing on narrower and narrower subject matter as one gets closer to completing a bachelor’s degree. But Brandeis chooses breadth. And from an educational point of view, it makes sense: an undergraduate degree is rarely the final degree for many fields, but conversely is the last degree obtained for the vast majority of American students (those lucky enough to attain any secondary education at all).

Over-specializing as an undergrad would be unproductive for most students, who come for a liberal arts education to broaden their minds with a holistic education that can apply to any path in life. The Brandeis system allows one to pick a field of particular interest but all its degrees are designed to teach to broader skills that are used in any profession.

An undergraduate degree from Brandeis in sociology does not make one a sociologist—it shouldn’t, and very few people who get one want to be actual sociologists. Brandeis’ liberal arts education is desirable because this university does not try to make an undergraduate degree something that it is not, a qualification by itself to practice many of the things in which we may technically major, such as biology or French.

In addition to low requirement counts and lax double-major and cross-listing standards, Brandeis offers a very permissive pass-fail option and late drop period: all of these things contribute to the varied-educational experience. After getting the breadth of the Brandeis education with these features that enable you to take all manner of subjects outside your comfort zone, you are ready. Either you are ready for the real world, as an educated, more well-adjusted individual, the path so many choose, or else prepared to take your major in anthropology and apply to grad school, where that further degree is the right one to qualify you to be a real anthropologist. But with my American studies major, I too could apply to an anthropology Ph.D. program. Thus, Brandeis’ system more honestly represents the true nature of higher education.

And if this has not convinced you, the Brandeis policies of cross-listing and lack of forced specialization can actually let students choose the method they like best for themselves, either breadth or depth. Nothing stops one from taking all the courses your major offers, matching the higher number of requirements at other schools and making sure you are more specialized than the average Brandeisian. In fact, Brandeis’ toothless general requirements can permit you to specialize even more, as we are free from a heavy-handed “Core Curriculum,” with which the lion’s share of major universities burden their undergraduates.

Most importantly though, you are permitted, not forced. The Brandeis system is most preferable because you can choose—for yourself—between the vision of breadth most academics here like to espouse and the depth that one needs to become a paid academic.