Orienteering Through the Dartmouth Curriculum
Professor James Murphy
In outdoor orienteering, a person is dropped into the middle of a wilderness and then expected to find his or her way out. You are about to be dropped into the middle of the Dartmouth curriculum and asked to chose 36 courses out of more than 1600 possibilities. You will experience some disorientation because, compared to high school, you now face many new and unfamiliar fields of study, from anthropology to zoology and from Arabic to neuroscience. Which courses to take? In what order? Do I pursue what I like? What I am used to? What I am good at? What will be useful? Where does one begin?
Just as one is given a map and compass in wilderness orienteering, so Dartmouth College provides you some aids in your journey through the curriculum. First, a set of general education requirements, including foreign language, writing, world culture, and a distribution of courses across the major branches of knowledge. Second, the requirement of selecting and completing a major course of study. So right away, you know that your Dartmouth Education will have two primary components: a general education and a major: in other words, breadth and depth.
You need not declare a major until the end of your sophomore year, so your first two years are rightly focused on acquiring your general education. What is a general education? First, your general education courses can help you figure out which branch of knowledge you want to pursue in some depth. You may think that you already know what you want to major in, but you are very likely to change your mind in light of taking a broad array of courses. Second, your general education will help you to see that all of knowledge is connected: history is a narrative, like literature and literature usually presupposes history; music involves mathematical relations, all romance languages are based in Latin, chemistry builds on physics, and so on. Third, and most important, your general education can prepare you for a life of learning, activity, and enjoyment in art, politics, music, literature, drama, science, and technology. But only the right kind of general education will equip you to select a major wisely and prepare you to know how to enjoy a lifetime of learning and enjoyment in the arts and sciences.
What is the right kind of general education? First, it is one that provides you with the right hooks on which to hang future learning: the right “intellectual Velcro”. What a person learns from any new experience, whether orienteering or reading a book, depends upon what they already know. The more you know about a topic the more you are able to learn, because you have the right concepts or hooks to retain the new information. A chess expert learns more from watching a chess competition than does a novice. The most effective kind of intellectual Velcro is a broad net of the basic concepts, because a comprehensive or general map of knowledge will enable you to retain more detail than a specialized map that covers only one sector of the terrain. If you are lost in a wilderness, you want a comprehensive map showing the main features of the whole territory. Then you can fill in the details.
Second, you need to understand how to navigate the tree or network of knowledge. Some knowledge is logically prior to other knowledge: calculus presupposes algebra, chemistry presupposes physics, advanced grammar presupposes basic grammar, etc. Some knowledge is historically prior to other knowledge because it builds on that knowledge: Vergil presupposes Homer, Dante presupposes Vergil, Milton presupposes Vergil and the Bible, James Joyce presupposes Homer; modern art presupposes ancient art, modern history presupposes ancient history, etc.
In the tree of knowledge, we must climb from the trunk to the primary limbs and then to the outer branches; it is very difficult to explore the tree by beginning from the outer branches. To update the metaphor, all knowledge is connected in a vast network and to navigate that network, we need to begin with the network nodes or anchor sites. What makes Google such an effective search engine is that it hierarchizes network sites by the degree of their connectivity: it takes us right to the anchor sites, which are the primary nodes of the network and lead us efficiently to the other nodes. What are the primary limbs of the tree of knowledge? What are the key network nodes?
In the humanities, they are the classic authors who have influenced all other authors: they give us the best access to the whole world of literature: all epics stem from Homer, all novels from Cervantes, all drama from Aeschylus and from Shakespeare. A famous 20th century philosopher famously said that all philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato. In the Encyclopedia Britannica, Aristotle’s name appears more than any other, because he influenced the most branches of human knowledge. In the sciences, they are the logically basic concepts taught in all good introductory courses: these basic concepts give us the best access to the rest of the territory. In the social sciences, they are a mix of classic authors and basic concepts and theories.
Dartmouth’s general education requirements are largely distributional requirements asking you to explore a wide range of knowledge. But these requirements are very open-ended. They make possible a sound general education, but they do not ensure it. Here is a list of 11 courses (open to virtually all comers) that, together, will satisfy your distributional general education requirements at Dartmouth today: Peoples of Oceania, Early Roman Imperial Archeology, Humans and Nature in America, Dinosaurs, Literature and Psychoanalysis, Literature and Music, Materials of the Earth, Technology of Sailing, Social Justice and the City, The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia, and Applications of Calculus to Medicine and Biology. Each of these courses is intrinsically interesting and worth of study for students who have already mastered the fundaments of the primary disciplines. But these kinds of courses do not provide students with the foundational or logically basic knowledge necessary for sound choices about future learning. They meet Dartmouth’s requirements for a general education, but they do not add up to one. It is easy to meet your distributional requirements but remain at the periphery of the tree of knowledge, flitting from branch to branch.
By contrast, consider an alternative list of 11 courses that also satisfy Dartmouth’s distribution requirements: Introduction to the History of Art, Human Biology, Epics of Greece and Rome, The Price System, The History of China, Calculus, Introduction to Philosophical Classics, History of Western Art Music, Introductory Physics, The American Political System, and Introduction to Technology. These courses are not intrinsically better or more worthy than the first list: but they are cognitively and pedagogically prior. They equip you with the key concepts, theories, and ideas you need in order to succeed in the classroom, select a major and, more important, to enjoy a lifetime of educational experiences in literature, music, politics, science, art, drama, and technology.
There is no single list of 11 ideal courses that constitute a sound general education for everyone. Each of you has a different degree and kind of background knowledge from high school. You have already acquired some part of your basic general education and are thus prepared for more advanced courses in certain fields. But whether in high school or at Dartmouth, you will learn most successfully by respecting the cumulative nature of knowledge. So, to mix metaphors, before going to the branches, first explore the limbs of the tree of knowledge or, like Google, go first to the network nodes and anchor sites. That way you’ll acquire a fine liberal education without spending too much time wandering aimlessly in the wilderness.