When I was in Washington late last month for Michael Novak’s funeral, I stayed at the Marriott in Foggy Bottom. It’s functionally a part of George Washington University’s campus.
After arriving on Friday night, I looked at what was nearby for dinner and ended up grabbing a sandwich from Carvings, a small deli around the block. It was a beautiful night, still in the mid-60s after a day that cracked the 70s in late February. The twilight was hanging in the air, and students were enlivening the streets and windows. On the way out I picked up a copy of The Hatchet, GW’s student newspaper.
The cover story was an uninteresting feature on their outgoing president’s global fundraising tour. Inside, an opinion piece by Sky Singer was more interesting. Headlined, “GW should let underclassmen take classes pass/fail,” Sky writes: “When I was a freshman … I felt hesitate to take classes I knew nothing about but thought might be interesting. The worry that I would fall behind on completing my requirements and the stress of maintaining a strong GPA during my first term dissuaded me from trying things outside of my comfort zone. But looking back on my first couple of years at GW, I wish I had taken the time to explore more classes and subjects I was not exposed to…”
I think this is absolutely right, and something I’m adding to my wishlist for Penn State. Our colleges have become far more administrative and credentialistic in their nature, and I’m sure what Sky describes at GW is a reality among most young people. When young people stay in their comfort zones and avoid interesting but intimidating subjects, the humane and liberal arts aspects of their education suffer.
Penn State was once at the forefront of radically rethinking what it meant to be a college-educated citizen, blending the liberal and “mechanical” arts to encourage the development a more comprehensively-educated sort of person. If students are taking simple courses to maintain a stellar GPA, their degree diminishes in its value.
Why not something as radical as a “first semester pass/fail” policy to encourage curiosity, boldness, and discovery?