Major concerns

Some majors lack the structure needed to provide a solid foundation in a field

By Peter Ianakiev

With the possible exception of the economics department, UChicago’s Core curriculum is the most famous part of the undergraduate education offered here. Yet, despite (or even because of) this emphasis on an educational foundation for all undergraduates, some of the most popular programs at the U of C lack coherent, required introductory sequences and courses for concentrators. This in turn has negative consequences for the overall experience one has in such a major.

Consider the undergraduate political science major. It is undoubtedly true that one of the benefits of this major is the flexibility it offers students; if you like international relations, you can fill your schedule with classes taught by Professors Mearsheimer, Pape, and Lipson. If you like political philosophy, Professors Tarcov and McCormick receive rave evaluations. However, the flexibility which allows one to focus mostly on IR classes and requires a student to take only one obligatory course in American politics is problematic when it comes to making sure that students have a well-rounded understanding of their own academic discipline.

One can argue that programs like political science or history have requirements sufficient to produce a well-rounded graduate of the program. But this is questionable—after all, one can fulfill a distribution requirement with an incredibly specialized course. This spring, for example, the poli sci department will offer “New Media and Politics,” which can be used to fulfill the requirement for American Politics. Though this is an important topic, it should not be the case that students can graduate from the political s cience department with this as the one course they take on American politics. And with the way the program is currently structured, this is a real possibility.

In the case of the history major, the requirements are once again distributional: Six courses in one’s area of specialty, four courses outside that area, and two BA seminars. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this structure, but the possibility exists, as in poli sci, that someone will have a great understanding of really specific topics (for example “Renaissance Demonology,” offered in the spring) at the expense of a strong general foundation and overview. Having deep knowledge on specialized topics is commendable, and clearly both the history and political science departments do very well when it comes to providing students with the opportunity to attain that knowledge. Still, the possibility exists that one can concentrate in American history at the U of C without even taking a course on 20th century American history.

The solution to this problem is fairly simple. The University can keep the current structure of the political science and history majors and thus give students a wide range of options regarding electives and courses, but also require a core sequence that gives concentrators a coherent foundation in the sub-disciplines and facets of their fields. Most students are probably not going to be thrilled to take these classes—I doubt I will be either—but the rationale for their existence is too compelling. The possibility that a political science major can leave UChicago lacking a real foundation in classical political philosophy or American politics is too great not to be taken seriously. It’s a dramatic example, but I don’t think it’s that different from a physics major not understanding electricity and magnetism, or a chemistry major never taking o-chem. Even if a physics major doesn’t like her introductory sequence very much, it’s hard to imagine her arguing for it not being necessary. And I think this reasoning applies to political science and history, too.

One can object that, ultimately, it is the Core curriculum’s job to provide students with the foundation the programs described above lack. But if that is the case, then I certainly wasn’t made aware of this when I was picking my Hum, Sosc, and Civ sequences, and I don’t think most undergrads were either. If you happened to feel adventurous and thus chose Mind for your Sosc, even if you were sure you wanted to be a poli sci major, does that mean that you are just not going to be required to read Hobbes, Aristotle, and Rousseau? Then, there’s the basic fact that the Common Core is intended for students of all backgrounds seeking a degree in any number of fields. Sequences like Hum and Sosc simply do not, by themselves, give political science or history majors the kind of foundation required for a well-rounded concentrator in those fields; they provide students with important general knowledge and skills, but can hardly be said to do the job of introductory sequences in political science or history. The same goes for Civilization requirements.

Nobody questions the quality of the undergraduate options here for political science or for history majors. But, as long as the potential exists for concentrators to come out of UChicago lacking essential knowledge in those fields, a real problem will exist with the way the majors are structured.

Peter Ianakiev is a third-year in the College majoring in Political Science.