Cartwright’s committee on curriculum: “Please take your chairs”

If you’ve ever done anything remotely creative or slightly wrong at Lawrence, you’ve probably encountered one of our university’s many committees. We have the Committee on Instruction, the Sub-Committee on University Administration, the Honor Council, the Judicial Board, SHARB, LUCC, the Committee on Public Occasions, ad-hoc committees under the President, (this is by no means an exhaustive list) and the one that provides its name to this column: the Faculty Committee on Curriculum.

These committees keep Lawrence moving. They make decisions for the future, provide strategy for our university, and deal with problems as they arise. Committees also afford our community some selective democracy; in other words, faculty and students make decisions collaboratively and by majority. But if you’ve ever received decisions from a committee that you disagreed with, you’ve probably asked yourself: Who’s really in charge?

For this column, make no mistake about whose opinion you’re reading—regardless of who shows up or is quoted, I am the writer, and thus you’ll have to decide whether you agree with my non-democratized point of view. As I return to The Lawrentian for the first time since I left its editorship last Winter, I aim to write about a topic which has been too little discussed in our weekly newspaper in recent years.

Curriculum—i.e. our courses, majors, special programs and lectures—is the undercurrent of what makes Lawrence a dynamic institution for its students. In a U.S. News article about Lawrence released last Wednesday, Sept. 18, the first aspect of the university noted was the quality of our music curriculum. For incoming freshmen, the first real opportunity to be a Lawrence student is to register early for classes. And yet, as a senior, the question I often ask myself is, What makes our curriculum the way it is?

To answer this, we should turn to one of this week’s committee members—the Lawrence University Course Catalog. I don’t blame you if this name is new to you. I asked ten random students to describe the Course Catalog, and only three gave me a correct answer. Yes, it is a massive PDF hidden within the Registrar section of Lawrence’s website, and yes, it is a bit obsolete since all the information can be found in other, more accessible areas of the Lawrence website. However, if you are a current student and you have never taken a look, you’ll find it’s pretty difficult to talk about curriculum intelligently without a brief skim through it.

For example, students and faculty often describe a subtle barrier between the Conservatory and the College. We complain that rigor is different on the two sides, that students are disadvantaged depending on the degree choice and that, often, the culture of our dual institution is split by College Ave. However, I believe these complaints are a matter of not paying attention to our friend, the Course Catalog.

On page 27, it states: “The Bachelor of Arts degree […] is designed to promote the breadth of study central to a liberal arts education […] and the development of skills essential for success in any discipline or profession.” Two pages later, it provides similarly placed description of a Bachelor of Music: “The B.M. is a professional degree…devoted to the study of music” with additional requirements like GERs and Freshman Studies.

As I read these lines, it’s clear to me that Lawrence offers two distinctly strong but fundamentally different degrees. The B.M. prepares students to enter the music world as professionals, regardless of postgraduate ambitions. The B.A. offers a liberal arts education that opens opportunities without attention to specific professional goals. Thus, why should we expect that students have similar experiences? Or that campus culture should be the same when we’re not in class? The magic of Lawrence’s combined educational platform is that two academic pathways can coexistence and lead to collective intellectual wonder.

If, as a university, we embrace this fundamental description of our curriculum, we will change the way we talk about our institution. Rather than asking why Lawrence isn’t more of an integrated learning experience, we will begin thinking more carefully about how two distinct ways of teaching and learning can mutually benefit each other.

As this year continues, my aim is to build a discussion around these fundamental issues in Lawrence’s curriculum. Here in Cartwright’s Committee, we’ve discussed degrees, and together, the Course Catalog and I have come to a certain conclusion. Next week, we’ll bring some bigger voices into the picture. GERs are a defining piece of what makes a liberal arts education valuable. Read the Course Catalog before then, and in next Friday’s The Lawrentian you, too, can join the conversation.