Freedom of Registration

The catalog has been released. Registration times have been assigned.
The ASPC planner has been updated. It’s course selection season again at the 5Cs,
coinciding, as always, with that point in the semester when everyone is just
sick enough of their current classes that they want to compulsively plan out
next year’s entirely more awesome ones. Nothing could be more exhilarating than
forgoing your essay that needs writing to obsessively move colored boxes around
a computer screen.

This is, of course, assuming you’ve already fulfilled your
general breadth of study requirements. And assuming the classes you want won’t
be PERM-ed to the heavens come registration time. And assuming you can
coordinate the requisite courses you need while studying abroad and narrowing
in on a major, or two.

Course registration is a process already mired in various
levels of bureaucracy, all in the name of securing the model liberal arts
education that we came to the 5Cs looking for. But it should give us all pause
when the administration starts saying that in order to protect that education,
it has to regulate it. Because that’s not what the liberal arts are about.

Many students incorrectly assume that “liberal” is merely a
synonym for “broad.” And indeed it is, but only as a derivative meaning from
its base definition, which is to say, a belief in personal freedom and agency.
When colleges introduce course requirements in an attempt to prescribe a
certain program of study, they affirm that breadth, the byproduct of
liberalism, but in doing so, obscure its origin. That’s a nuance we must attend
to.

One of the top issues in the ASPC elections at Pomona
College a few weeks ago was the possibility of adding yet another hoop to jump
through in order to graduate: a DDP, or Dynamics of Difference and
Power, course requirement. Such a requirement would force students to take a course “that uses
class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion and/or sexuality as categories of
analysis and that examines power at the interpersonal, local, national and/or
international levels,” as the Pomona website currently puts it.

This is, of course, not an unworthy goal, but that makes it
all the more insidious. It is important to remember that the original setting,
in any social contract, is one of liberty. It is true that when we chose to
matriculate at the 5Cs, we ceded some freedom to decide for ourselves how our
education was to be. But not all of it. We must remember that the onus, in
matters like these, always falls on those who are trying to effect change. That
is to say, liberty is the default. Is a DDP requirement really important enough
to override that?

Quite simply, no.

The basic premise of such a requirement elevates the
importance of this particular field of study above others. No one is arguing
that it is unimportant to examine the issues of class, race, and gender.
Indeed, these are all topics already amply covered by the current breadth of
study requirements. But DDP presumes that these issues are somehow more
important than everything else that a liberal arts institution imparts, and
seeks to mandate a specific study of them.

This classification is, frankly, arbitrary. There is a whole
host of topics that Pomona could require its students to address: environmental
justice, corporate ethics, social egalitarianism, to name just a few. It would
be impossible to enumerate all the issues that an ideal Pomona student should
care about. So why attempt to single out any single issue as something that
students should universally concentrate themselves on? The beauty of the
liberal arts is the freedom for students to study what they themselves are
truly interested in, be it DDP or anything else.

At its heart, the campaign for DDP is founded on an underlying
mistrust in the students here, a doubt that we would willingly pursue those
issues on our own. And maybe we wouldn’t. But that is really a reflection of the culture of nourishment that Pomona champions here, not our prior
dispositions. It’s really a doubt in the capacity of the college, its
professors, and its advising program to organically engender interest in the
DDP issue. So instead, the proposed solution is to impose such an interest from
the top down.

That strikes me as illiberal. It is true that a good
education should be a broad one. But the individual student should choose that
breadth. It would be an excessive conceit on the part of the college to presume
it can determine that for everyone.

Pomona does not have a duty to imbue its students with a
certain subset of knowledge, but it does have a duty to protect its students’
agency in determining their own liberal education. Next year, during the course
requirement audit, let’s say no to DDP.

Matt Dahl PO ’17 hails from Newton, Mass., and is a committed member of Pomona Mock Trial. 

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