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On University requirements

| Thursday, March 1, 2018

I normally try to get to bed early on Sunday nights — to start my week off on a less sleep-deprived note — but this time I stayed up past 2 a.m. talking on the phone with a friend from my hometown. He plays guitar as a jazz studies student at a university in Texas, where the entirety of his academic and extracurricular involvements concern the subject. Throughout our conversation, he explained the ups and downs of converting his passion for music into a major and career, emphasizing that his sole academic focus at the moment is on jazz studies.

“It’s great that 100 percent of the work you do is what you love,” he said. “But it sucks that what you love becomes 100 percent of your work.”

Notre Dame students often complain about the University’s core curriculum requirements — a list of classes including subjects such as philosophy, theology, social science, math, history and literature — totaling around 14 classes over the course of four years. Many students, such as those in the College of Science, are also required to complete a language requirement, despite an apparent lack of its necessity in most science careers. Variations of “if I wanted to study Spanish, I would be a Spanish major” are often overheard in conversations between biology students, and these sentiments certainly seem reasonable — why a chemical engineer that plans to live in the Midwest would absolutely need to be intermediately fluent in French, no one is entirely sure.

Because of its emphasis on imparting a set of “common foundational skills,” most high school educations do not give students the chance to take classes closely suited to their interests and passions. In college, however, students have the ability to do just that — to choose majors and minors that delve into their specific areas of interest, and to use these studies to build skills and experiences that will support their ultimate career objectives.

University requirements put a damper on this freedom, in a sense. The core curriculum often requires students to take classes outside the sphere of their area of study and, oftentimes, their vaguest interests altogether. The main benefit of the “liberal arts” approach of a core curriculum is often advertised as making students more well-rounded and prepared for a wide variety of tasks and occupations following graduation. But one of the most valuable — and far less recognized — effects of the core curriculum is that it may help prevent academic burnout.

Academic burnout is exactly what it sounds like: It is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, often coupled with negative feelings such as cynicism and detachment, ultimately leading to a loss of motivation and interest in a person’s work or studies.

A 2007 study published in “Annals of Internal Medicine” found that about 50 percent of medical school students (among more than 2,000 surveyed across seven schools) experienced academic burnout; it should be noted that medical school is one of the most specialized — anti-liberal arts, if you will — educations that exist. Conversely, establishments (such as The Princeton Review) that rank universities “with the happiest college students” consistently present a list of schools that put an emphasis on a liberal arts approach to education, one that encourages students to pursue a variety of academic interests outside of their main focus on study.

The bottom-line? An education that requires students to study subjects outside of their major might actually be partially responsible for motivated success in the major itself — and might even make students happier overall.

Of course, many factors — stress, workload, physical health and sleep — play into the development of academic burnout, but I think it is fair to say that the nature of a student’s education does, too. As a biological sciences student that has spent a majority of my time focusing on science courses, I have experienced my fair share of burnout. Strangely enough, I have found that the most effective way to alleviate burnout is not increased leisure time, or going to bed earlier, or even managing my time more effectively — but studying subjects outside of my major.

Although I cannot pinpoint exactly why this is, I can offer a few hypotheses. Perhaps it is as simple as being able to take a break from usual curricular tasks to work on a completely different subject and still feel accomplished for getting something done. Perhaps it is just the fact that University requirement courses like fine arts or theology are more “fun” than organic chemistry II, and provide a mental and emotional break from the sometimes monotonous drone of studying a single subject.

Curiosity fuels proactive, enjoyable learning: Perhaps courses in psychology and philosophy spark a curiosity in many students that accounting II simply does not. And maybe — just maybe — a student is able to walk out of a University requirement course with this curiosity intact and finds that they can apply it to other areas of study for increasingly motivated, invested learning. Regardless, I am strangely grateful for University requirements.

And did I mention how much they bring up my GPA?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Kara Miecznikowski

Kara Miecznikowski is a Notre Dame senior majoring in biological sciences with a minor in journalism. Originally from Chesterton, Indiana, she currently lives in Howard Hall.

Contact Kara