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Kalyanpur '13: Why commit to a concentration?

As the concentration declaration deadline nears, there is a familiar buzz surrounding the sophomore class. With only two weeks to go, many students are scurrying about looking for an adviser to casually sign off on their forms. Unfortunately, convenience frequently trumps serious reflection. Our declaration process, with its generic questions and lack of permanence, has practically become a farce. As students, we view it as a superficial requirement rather than as the opportunity for introspection it should be. Few realize we are not simply choosing a set of classes but are actually committing to a mode of thought that will fundamentally change our approach to problem-solving. 

Many of us meander in our first year, experimenting and trying to sample everything that piques our interests. What results is uncertainty and anxiety, which often plagues our second year as the "sophomore slump" starts to take hold. Under this pressure, we are prone to make decisions we will regret later. 

A Brown student's declared concentration can often end up being one with few requirements. This leaves our options open and allows us to put off that final decision even longer. Or else, we choose a concentration that satisfies our parents and lessens the pressure of joining the working world - I'm thinking of economics in particular here. Though all this may fit with the mechanics of our system, it highlights a failure to understand the University's educational philosophy.

The University mission statement is vague to say the least. While we often throw out ambiguous terms like "critical thinking" as the end goals of our academic experiences, what we frequently fail to recognize is that our classes and concentration are not designed to merely provide us with facts and figures. Rather, they aim to develop a framework of analysis in which to synthesize that knowledge. In other words, a concentration shapes how we will think.

Though there are definitely some overlaps, most concentrations strive to embed students within a particular school of thought. Philosophy tends to hone one's ability to think abstractly and focus on the subtle implications of arguments. Economics involves creating idealized models of human behavior and asks its students to apply those theories to the world. Engineers study physical systems by following a stringent and logical methodology. These are oversimplified descriptions, but you get the idea. 

I have ranted before about our need to improve advising ("The advising fallacies," Feb. 27), and there is no doubt that some of the blame needs to be placed on faculty. Many concentration advisers approach the process with the same listless attitude of most students - "let's get this out of the way." 

But at the same time, it's not only the professors' fault. A recent Herald editorial ("Concentrating on the declaration process," March 12) rightly critiqued the declaration application itself, citing its failure to prompt more self-reflection. Both these issues are only just starting points. For our student body to get the most out of their academic experiences, the whole process needs to be rethought from the bottom up. 

Having recently written an Independent Concentration application, I can vouch for the fact that the questions the Curricular Resource Center pose act as catalysts for genuine reflection. It is a process I would encourage any confused student to attempt. Even if you do not want to pursue an IC, thinking through the process will make you consolidate your interests and help you recognize the values of the standard concentrations you are considering. 

If we do not see any substantial reforms to the amount of thought required to declare or choose a concentration under the current system, students will continue to diminish the potential worth of their education. The convenience and futility that characterize the process are disrespectful to the New Curriculum. There is nothing wrong with following an established path as long as you actually take the time to assess its merits. 

It goes without saying that these four years end up shaping what we do for and with the rest of our lives. The people we meet and the classes we take all have a substantial impact. But there are only a few conversations or lectures that we will distinctly be able to recall. However, a concentration has a much more profound effect on our future lives. When selecting a concentration, you are not just choosing a set of classes. You are adopting a perspective that will influence your life long after you have walked out of those Van Wickle gates.

 

 

Nikhil Kalyanpur '13 is a junior who likes Little Talks. He can be reached at 

nik.kalyanpur@gmail.com


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