It was hard for me to feel utter shock or disappointment at the affirmative action ruling — the truth is, I felt it coming. It is hard to feel optimistic in an age where marginalized people’s education and space in the classroom seems negotiable.
On June 29, Penn President Liz Magill and Provost John Jackson Jr. issued a statement regarding the Supreme Court decision, saying, “This decision will require changes in our admissions practices. But our values and beliefs will not change.” They assert that a diverse community is foundational to Penn’s educational mission. Yet I question this statement: If the process has changed significantly, aren’t Penn’s supposed values and beliefs put at risk? Furthermore, the statement prompted me to interrogate what values and beliefs are promoted by Penn’s educational model in the first place. Penn cannot simply claim to value diversity and inclusion, but must actively demonstrate their commitment to those values. With that, the decisions surrounding the curriculum must be questioned. We must hold the University accountable to uphold and act upon the principles they stand for, rather than merely make hollow statements.
As a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, the General Education requirement is one of the defining components of my Penn degree. Made up of six Foundational Approaches and seven Sectors of Knowledge, the curriculum seeks to mold a well-rounded student grounded in a liberal arts education. Given that it takes up one-third of my college credits, it is important that it lives up to its promise of promoting “complex thinking.”
While I appreciate the breadth of disciplines the General Education curriculum encourages students to pursue through the Sectors, there is a substantial lack in the Foundational Approaches requirements. The gen ed classes I have taken have rarely prompted me to question my perspective. One may say that this is dependent on the courses I have chosen; however, as a communication and Africana studies major, I have consistently tried to pursue classes that challenge my assumptions and beliefs.
The course of study I have chosen at Penn engages with critical theory: through foundational classes for my majors, like “Critical Approaches to Popular Culture” and “Introduction to Africana Studies,” my outlook on the world has changed. However, I cannot say that Penn's gen ed requirement has encouraged that same level of introspection — and this is coming from a student who actively seeks out intellectual framework-challenging courses. Other students, who may not be as inclined, will complete their entire tenure at Penn without experiencing a course that tests their way of thinking.
My critical writing seminar, “Reality TV and Gender,” was the closest I have come to finding a Foundational Approaches course that urged me to reconsider, or shift, my paradigm. From classes like “Museums and Anti-Racism” to “Questions of Normalcy,” many writing seminars have the potential to allow students to exercise a critically curious mind.
However, I found the critical component of the course to be rushed and glossed over in favor of practicing outlines and summaries. It takes more time to meaningfully engage with the critical theories present in the texts we read. The writing seminar curriculum instead signals that the white papers and portfolios we produce are more important than the intellectual curiosity that may be engendered from deep engagement with texts. While there are extremely important and necessary skills to learn for the professional world, this prioritization shows Penn’s preference for emphasizing pre-professionalism as opposed to fostering intellectually curious students.
Furthermore, in the College mission statement, the school claims that one curriculum goal is to prepare students for “the informed exercise of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” While this is admirable, I believe Penn falls flat on this promise with the current structure of its educational model.
This is largely due to the College’s focus on promoting critical thinking without emphasizing critical theory (thus failing to truly promote critical thinking). Critical thinking results in skillful evaluation and reasonable judgment, whereas critical theory encourages students to question societal norms and perceive the underlying injustices prevalent in our communities. With the current General Education model, we are asked to be critical thinkers in multiple academic disciplines. However, to what extent can the school create thoughtful citizens when we are rarely encouraged to challenge our established perspectives as students? Critical thinking skills are not sufficient — we need theory, too.
Given the impending changing landscape of higher education, it is important that we examine the substance of the education being taught in these elite institutions. Several of the Supreme Court Justices were borne out of the same schools of thought that claim to encourage diversity and critical minds. However, if that is true, then the affirmative action decision exemplifies that many selective universities are not necessarily producing thoughtful citizens. Some graduates are ensuing the wrong kind of change: regressive instead of progressive.
When we are talking about threats to society, topics like white supremacy and racial injustice fly out the window, and our focus shifts towards those who are fighting for equity. Affirmative action, framed as a threat to equality for all, demonstrates a severe lapse in our academic judgment — a lapse that is partly present due to the lack of critical theory in our college education system.
As we grapple with the discouraging June 29 decision and how it affects who gets to be inside the classroom, I encourage us to reflect on what is being taught inside the classroom as well. After all, those seated on the Supreme Court bench were once in student seats, too.
ADEOLUWA FATUKASI is a rising junior in the College studying communication and Africana studies from Potomac, Md. Her email address is email@example.com.