Last week’s faculty reassessment of the qualifications for Latin honors is a mixed bag. On one hand, the changes to the grade requirements for earning honors do not devalue students’ achievement of Latin honors. There is no harm in honoring a greater proportion of the graduating class — commencement may take a little longer, but it’s still the same cane and the same resume tinsel. That move, in pushing beyond meaningless differences in grade point averages, is a good one. And English honors still exist for those who take pleasure in looking down their noses at fellow classmates.
The new “breadth requirement,” on the other hand, has been subject to far more histrionics. Despite some protestations to the contrary, the decision is not the end of the world as we know it, and its limited application to Latin honors conferral means it does not explicitly contradict the open curriculum. Nonetheless, the requirement’s implication that the exemplary Amherst student should take classes across haphazard categories misapprehends the value of a liberal arts education.
Siloing academic departments into categories hinging on whether students wield pipettes or paintbrushes more often reinforces the same disciplinary divisions that lead students to write off seemingly disparate academic areas in the first place. There is no reason that honors eligibility should be contingent upon enrolling in at least one class in the arts, humanities, science and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences, because categorizing on this scale cuts jaggedly across boundaries that are by nature communicative. Moreover, an English major is not “risk-averse” if they opt to chance a Russian or a European studies class instead of a chemistry lecture. A graduate is no less laudable because they focused their course selection on one, two, or three of the four designated quadrants of knowledge during their tenure at Amherst.
A liberal arts education is not a scavenger hunt. It’s about recognizing the enormous potential for further learning in every discipline. If the faculty wanted to institute a requirement for Latin honors that courses be taken in 10 different departments, including cross-designated courses, that would be emblematic of a “willingness to explore unfamiliar intellectual and/or creative fields.” But, as is most egregiously demonstrated by the 24 departments included in the “humanities” column, the requirements’ categorizations do not constitute “fields of expertise” — taking a Latinx and Latin American studies course does not augment your Latin, for one of many possible examples. For that matter, no 12-course major makes anyone an expert on anything, certainly not on 23 other departments, nor is it trying to.
A student who over their four years takes classes in one gigantic clump of departments is just as committed to the Amherst mission — “undertaking inquiry and … shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum” — as any other. The idea that a graduate has failed to meet Amherst’s highest standards if they took courses solely in the “humanities” or “arts” or “STEM” is a slap on the wrist to thousands of alums since the establishment of the open curriculum.
To a less grievous extent, the “breadth requirements” for Latin honors suggest a breakdown in professors’ trust in their pupils. Amherst’s supplemental essays last year were responses to quotes by professors on ideas in their fields. This prerequisite for admission served both to demonstrate respect for faculty passions and the chance to state our own. It is a departure from that ethos to determine for students what they should be interested in. Admissions panels vet students to ensure that they know how to identify their interests, and that they are eager to engage with faculty in developing those interests.
Amherst’s advising program is ostensibly quite strong. If some faculty feel that they cannot compel their advisees to enroll in courses in a variety of subjects, then the solution is not imposing courses valued by how far they fall from the student’s stated interest. A solution might entail more face-time with the advisee or work to identify more desirable courses outside of their comfort zone, but certainly not dangling a “magna” behind the gates of one course or another. Bribing ambitious students with Latin lettering is far from the most thoughtful or creative solution to the campus-wide course diversity problem.
Certainly, the purpose of the breadth requirement is to serve as a vehicle by which faculty encourage students to deviate from their major track and core interest, and to reject a purely pre-professional college experience. These are noble goals — but conflating the exploration of unfamiliar disciplines with ticking off mishmashed fields of study misses the point. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a half-measure that, rather than bolstering Amherst’s broad array of excellent courses, perfunctorily color-codes them.