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The Vagelos Scholars Program in Molecular Life Sciences is structured so that we have one free elective each semester of freshman year. I usually filled that blank slot with courses that were related either to my background or professional goals: for example, a writing seminar about Chinese medicine or Biomedical Ethics.

Despite choosing these classes because of their familiarity, I was unhappy at the conclusion of each semester. I discovered why only after taking several English classes that moved me because the material was refreshingly new. Whereas before, I thought I was a strictly math-and-science girl, I now know that I also love literature. In short, it was easy for me to find a niche. The difficult part was taking that first step outside the Chemistry Department.

Unfortunately, not everyone explores. We may have distribution requirements, but the sectors are so flexible that it is easy to take only those classes that fit our schedules or promise lighter fare. Given the temptation of this academic comfort zone, I have come to believe that when it comes to education, Columbia University does it best.

Two classes serve as the focus of Columbia’s Core Curriculum: Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West and Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy. Both meet for two semesters in small, 22-person sections, thereby ensuring the intimate discussion I value in English classes. According to the school’s web site, the formal purpose of Columbia’s Core is to “create a community of intellectual discourse that spills over beyond the classroom and into dormitories, dining halls and the many cafe’s that surround the campus.” For Columbia, the Core provides an atmosphere of intellectual cohesion — an atmosphere that Penn, given its pre-professional culture, desperately needs. Ben Franklin envisioned Penn as a place where students could receive both practical and classical education, but the latter is often subordinated.

Of course, there are advantages to Penn’s curriculum. “You get to learn from your fellow students about things you haven’t studied” with more flexible distribution requirements,” said Associate Director of Academic Advising Alice Kelley. She added that she doesn’t see Penn moving toward a system like Columbia’s in the near future.

Whatever the ideal core is, I think that at Penn, it should be universal (though this is not entirely the case at Columbia, where the Core is modified for Engineering students). No one in the Wharton School or in the schools of Engineering and Nursing should be exempt. After all, it is in a pre-professional environment where students are the most likely to forget the importance of a liberal arts education.

Alicia Cantalupo is a third-year studying violin at the Peabody Institute, a top music conservatory. In her case, enrolling in a conservatory immediately has left her with “the equivalent of a high-school education.”

“I first came to Peabody supporting specialized education, but now I feel that everyone should be exposed to a little of everything,” she said. “The more you see, the more you will want to learn even more.” At Peabody, students can take classes at nearby Johns Hopkins University, but given the long days of rehearsals and lessons, it is quite an accomplishment to still have energy for anything outside music.

The same goes for our pre-professional schools. Since Anatomy and Physiology and Finance are challenging enough, who can blame students for letting literature fall to the wayside? We can’t blame them, but that does not lighten Penn’s responsibility to provide all of us with a rigorous, well-rounded education. Think of the core as a pill; it may be bitter, but it’s good for you. Ultimately, a stronger core would help us inch toward becoming Renaissance men, which, given Ben Franklin’s reputation as the ultimate Renaissance man, is what Penn is about.

Cyndi Chung is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. Her e-mail address is Slip of the Chung appears on alternate Mondays.

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