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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Op-Ed: A whole lot of culture in one requirement

Calling all cultures! If you want to graduate from Middlebury, you have to meet some academic distribution requirements. Many of us sweat and struggle, searching for that second college writing class. Many of us pull a fist-pump when we discover that we may skip one of the eight disciplinary categories (this writer won’t take science). But what about the third academic requirement? The Cultures and Civilizations Requirement (CCR).

Did that one ever make you lose sleep? I admit, I’ve lost sleep over the CCR. Not because it threatened to crush my graduation dreams, but because its internal structure clashes with Middlebury values.

In order to graduate, you must take at least one class from each of the four categories of the CCR. Those four categories are CMP, NOR, EUR and AAL. CMP is comparative (ie. classes that compare cultures), NOR is North America (ie. The United States and Canada), EUR is Europe (ie. Europe) and AAL is, well, a mouthful. According to the course catalog, it is “courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and the Caribbean.”

It is strange that Middlebury places these five distinct geographic regions under the single banner, given its commitment to exploring the diversity of the world’s cultures. I understand that the structure of the CCR is not making any outright statements about whether a given region is worth more than another. That said, I do believe that the structure perpetuates some lingering conceptions that we all know are wrong (for descriptions of the “conceptions” I’m talking about, go read anything on Orientalism or colonialism).

Where did this structure come from? I do not think the Curriculum Board sat down one day and said, “As for the world outside North America and Europe...well there’s not as much there worth studying. Learning about one culture in there should be enough. Let’s lump them together.” That is ridiculous. I’d like to believe that rather than being a prescriptive structure, the CCR is a descriptive structure. That is, rather than prescribing what an ideal “culturally diverse” education should look like, the CCR merely reflects the reality of our course catalog: lots of professors teach classes about North America and Europe. A quick run through the course catalog reveals that NOR, EUR and AAL each contain about equal numbers of classes (45 to 50 apiece). Has the distribution of classes always looked like this or did it evolve to match the organization of the CCR into these three categories? This is one of many questions that I would like to see answered.

I am not calling for an expansion of the CCR to more than four categories (NOR, EUR, CMP, ASI, LAT, MID, AUS, NYC ...). We don’t need more distribution requirements. My purpose in writing this piece was to make Middlebury students aware of this issue, so that if there is sufficient interest, we can form a group to propose an alternative. I believe that this is a feasible and worthwhile goal. While the CCR is a comparatively small issue, it should nevertheless be held to the same standards that define the Middlebury academic community, a community I’m proud to be a part of.

Questions that I would like to see answered:

1. When did the CCR appear? Under what circumstances?

2. Is the black sheep category, CMP, even worthwhile?

3. Does it make sense to divide an international education by geographic region? (as opposed to class, language, religion, etc.)

4. Under the current system, are there problems in the way individual classes are labeled?

5. Do similar institutions have a cultural requirement? How is it structured?