The Common Curriculum Needs to Stay
story | Yip Jia Qi, Opinion Editor
photo | Rachel Juay
I came to Yale-NUS College for the Common Curriculum, not despite it. The Common Curriculum is content curation, and given the vast body of information we have at our fingertips, content curation is everything.
The Common Curriculum is a tour of almost every area of academic interest we have today. In my mind it is like the tram ride at the Night Safari, providing a passing glimpse of all the exhibits just to know what there is to know, where you have to get off the tram and walk to the exhibit to actually learn about it for real. Every year, many people in this school agonize over the speed of this tram ride—the delicate balance between breadth, depth and student sanity that is fundamental to the execution of the Common Curriculum. Given all the problems this creates, it is tempting to just abandon the tram and just walk, however I think the ride itself is too important a part of the Yale-NUS experience to do away with.
As outstanding as Yale-NUS students are, you can’t know what you don’t know. If we get to choose all our courses, we naturally choose only courses we think we like or are good at based on the limited things we know. The only way out of our echo-chamber is to bring a sledgehammer to it, and that’s what the Common Curriculum is. The faculty designing the Common Curriculum have been there, done that, and are in a better position to curate a course to give us a big picture of what their whole field is about. The Common Curriculum might show you something you never dreamt even existed, and you might fall in love with it. Or you might hate it with a burning passion. Or be completely ambivalent. Either way you emerge better for it.
The Common Curriculum is also so broad that on balance everyone will eventually find something that renders them helpless where others find effortless, and vice versa. For those of us who might have had a relatively smooth sailing academic career thus far, the experience of finding such a thing is terrifying, perplexing, humbling, and I think overcoming it is an important learning experience in itself.
Of course, it is important for the faculty to pitch courses at an accessible level, but that students finding certain courses more difficult than others is inevitable. Scientific Inquiry is where this is most evident, but this is true for all courses. Having never heard of a “close reading” is as perplexing as not knowing how to manipulate logarithms. The group that suffers from the former deficiency is less populous, but present. In the Common curriculum, everyone has to catch up in one area or another. Instead of giving up on the hard course, I think a better approach would be for us to help each other out, cover for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Choosing electives is an integral part of the Yale-NUS experience, and it makes for some really tough decisions because of the wide range of exciting courses we have every semester. I feel the common curriculum makes it easier for us to make these difficult decisions. Firstly, let’s say you can choose any philosophy module from next semester’s courses. How would you know if Money, Aristotle, or Ancient Greek Political Philosophy is best for you, if you have never written a philosophy essay before? How can a brief module descriptions be sufficient to explain what the study of philosophy is like? Secondly, imagine how many modules it will take to cover the breadth of topics that Comparative Social Inquiry has covered. By the time you took a module in each of the 11 topics you will probably be at least halfway to graduation when by the time you’re done.
Finally, we also cannot ignore the conversations the Common Curriculum allows us to have. During last week’s YaleNUSForum session “on what is a liberal arts education”, a point brought up by the panel of upperclassmen was that their education in Yale-NUS gave them a greater empathy for a variety of disciplines that is very useful, yet uncommon. As a freshman I don’t observe this yet, but I can imagine this to be at least plausible.
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The Common Curriculum in its fourth rendition and is still a work in progress, but I believe in the ideals of this ambitious project. There are definitely difficult issues to be dealt with, especially the Scientific Inquiry curriculum, and Literature and Humanities too, even if it is not talked about as much. But given the range of experiences and conversations the Common Curriculum bestows upon us, these drawbacks aren’t deal breaking by any means. Keeping in mind that the first class has not even graduated, I believe it is premature to leave the tram just yet.
Click here for an alternative view on why the common curriculum should go.
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