January 29, 2008

To B.A. or not to B.A.?

In recent weeks, fourth-years have foregone sunlight, non-caffeinated beverages, and anything resembling a healthy diet so that they can complete their B.A. theses. At a school that prides itself on its academic rigor, it is surprising that these suffering students represent only a portion of their class. The University does not require all of its undergraduates to write B.A. theses or research papers, depriving them of an important academic experience.

Some of the most popular majors in the social sciences and humanities, including political science, economics, and (inexplicably) English, do not require B.A. theses. In fact, it’s not uncommon for crafty U of C students to choose their majors based on how much work is, or isn’t, required during fourth year. Only when all majors require B.A. theses—or research papers for the sciences—will all U of C diplomas hold the same weight.

The B.A. paper would represent more than just another requirement. U of C graduates—and, by extension, the U of C itself—will be judged by their intelligence and ability to express themselves in writing. The Core was designed, in part, to teach students to write. A B.A. thesis may be the only time an undergraduate works independently to shape a long, persuasive, and original argument.

The skills required to research and write such a paper are integral to most post-graduate work, whether in law school, I-banking, or academia. It is especially important for graduate school, where applicants are increasingly expected to have produced independent theses or research papers by the time they apply. As it stands, many students are at a major disadvantage should they apply to graduate school.

It is natural that an undergraduate career comes to an end with either a paper or a research project—that’s why many of our peer institutions require B.A. theses. The project challenges students to produce independent work and forces them to develop skills they may not yet have honed. A University of Chicago degree should represent a unique academic achievement. This will not be the case as long as some students can opt out of an integral part of their education.