Plotting One's Own Course

Over winter break, I had the chance to reconvene with several friends from outside of Lawrenceville.

Over winter break, I had the chance to reconvene with several friends from outside of Lawrenceville. After having not seen one another for months, the conversation inevitably turned to school. As everyone went around sharing his or her experiences, I was eventually asked the age-old question: “What courses are you taking now?” In a practically rehearsed statement, I explained how Lawrenceville’s course selection worked, what with the School’s specialized curriculum deviating from the standardized classes found at most schools. However, as I went on to explain the many “advanced” courses I had built up to my junior year, most of them frowned. The majority of them had taken those courses long before, if not doubling on specialized courses in their area of interest. While I was currently learning U.S. history, many of them had long since moved on to European History and economics. The difference, of course, lay in the many foundational courses for freshman and sophomores (Cultural Studies/Forces), predetermined courses we at Lawrenceville were required to study at a high level. However, as I reflected on their outsider perspective, it seemed I had very little choice in my own education.

I did my best to justify Lawrenceville’s paradigm: Education plays a critical role in providing the framework for discovering interests. High school is often a time to branch out into what we don’t know and discover areas of possible interest. And yet, in order to discover what we want to explore, we need to know what exists to be explored; thus, our very lack of knowledge makes some form of guidance or general outline necessary, hence the course requirements.

However, an entirely predetermined education leads to little possibility for exploration. On the spectrum between choice and rigidity, Lawrenceville’s two years of required introductory courses for science and history, along with three years for English, moves too far from choice. A curriculum steeped in this guiding framework allows too little time to discover new interests or specialize in a specific topic. The result is that by the time most Lawrentians finish their sophomore year—half of their time at Lawrenceville—they will have only been able to truly choose one class: a single term of religion.

While some may argue that Lawrenceville’s specific introductory courses are necessary to prepare students with the analytic mindset to approach the rigors of later courses, this is not true.The fallacy that only uniform, predetermined introductory courses have the capability to act as a stepping stones relies on the premise that other specialized courses are too difficult to be accessed immediately. In reality, specialized courses are just as capable in preparing student in mindset. Topicality changes, but analytical rigor doesn’t have to. For example, while juniors can choose between biology and chemistry—and they differ in topic—both theoretically serve the overarching purpose of cultivating higher level science work. At the lower level, this can be true as well. Forces of the Modern World, which touches on topics in European, world, and U.S. history, can be split into those three courses, allowing for specialization and choice while still preparing for later academic intensity.

If the goal of an effective education is to lead students towards various potential interests, then exposing them to knowledge should aid in this pursuit. While there is no way to ensure that students will leave Lawrenceville knowing their life passions, by being exposed to more nuanced and detailed experiences while understanding more about the world, the possibilities for finding one’s interests increase. Broad and overarching foundational courses may help in setting up these possibilities, but there is point in which they ultimately hinder progress. An introductory year of Cultural Studies may be beneficial to one’s approach to history, is it worth another year, half of your entire Lawrenceville career, to further acclimate to this concept? Can the same not be done in a non-uniform course system?

The central reasoning behind Lawrenceville’s core curriculum system—a classic liberal arts approach—is premised on varying one’s exposure to the world to elevate a student’s overall understanding. However, the inflexibility of this system leaves much to be desired. While Lawrenceville’s curriculum should still adhere to its values of a core system, more choices should be offered to replace fundamental introductory courses.