Weeding out the young

Unrealistically difficult courses contradict the promise of a liberal arts education

Prior to registration, there is a common warning that echoes around college campuses: “That’s a weed-out course.” We are discouraged from taking certain classes — especially those required for pre-professional tracks — as upperclassmen and even a few professors will attest to the potential GPA damage that could result from our enrollment. Some may argue that these classes simply cover material that is more intellectually challenging, and thus they are more difficult than typical intro-level classes. But in my experience, and the experiences of many of my peers, these classes seem engineered to be a struggle, designed to “weed-out” those students who are considered inadequate before they waste their time pursuing a profession such as medicine or business. To designate certain courses — such as General Chemistry or Principles of Economics — “weed-out” courses, and then to act as if doing so is in the interest of your students, is ridiculous. The idea of a weed-out course is a wholly flawed concept.

I arrived at the University a pre-medical student, as did many of the friends that I have made here. We all entered college full of passion and idealism, determined to help people and change the face of medicine. Our first semester is now coming to a close, but far from anticipating our futures with excitement, many of us are feeling downtrodden and burdened with self-doubt. We are being forced to undergo extensive soul-searching and to ask ourselves, “Is medical school really what I want?” Self-reflection can be a positive and useful experience. Maybe some of us are not meant to be doctors. But should we be coming to the decision to shelf our dreams after one semester? We were hardly given time to adjust to college and to realize the demands of our “normal” classes before we were bombarded with unreal expectations and tests that seemed impossible.

The classes at the University should be tough. I am not arguing for easier classes or a lack of academic rigor. I do not think any of us would have chosen to come here in the first place if we were looking for an easy route to a diploma. I do not think the classes should be made easier — I think they should be reasonable. Why is it that many of my friends have dropped their pre-med title completely in favor of humanities degrees? Is it because classes in the humanities departments are easier? Well, to gauge level of difficulty is a subjective process, but I would argue no. You have to commit an equal amount of time and effort to your humanities classes — hundreds of pages a week are not going to read themselves. But in the humanities classes I am taking, at least, I have witnessed a very clear correlation between the amount of effort that I exert and the grades that I receive. That seems fair to me. Yet I have witnessed many people, myself included, struggle to perform well in their pre-med or pre-commerce courses, despite a significant amount of effort.

The idea that we need to “weed-out” potential doctors, say, by scaring them with difficult classes in their first semester, is simply unsound. A solid, liberal arts foundation is an admirable goal. But not all of the knowledge that you acquire in college will be necessary in your eventual profession, and we should not act like it will be. General Chemistry, for instance, is important. But the ability to memorize molecular geometries or conceptualize hybrid orbitals does not a good doctor make. Critical thinking and reasoning skills are undoubtedly necessary for the pursuit of a graduate degree. Thus, pre-medical students are encouraged to take a semester of calculus or statistics. But doctors, practically speaking, do not need to know how to integrate. We should not be making the determination that someone is unfit to be a doctor because he struggles in introductory level classes when he is 18 or 19 years old.

And although no one can make a student abandon his pursuit of the pre-med curriculum except that student himself, I would argue that attaching a huge amount of pressure and expectation to first semester classes, in which you know students will struggle, is a form of coercion. Students will feel like they are simply not cut out to pursue a medical degree, and that is a shame.

If a student were to go faint in Gross Anatomy, or find himself completely uninterested in a class on healthcare legislation, then yes, maybe he is unfit for the field of medicine. Let those classes be determining factors. We need to allow students to get their footing and gain some life experience before we declare them unqualified for a particular profession. If you contend that we cannot wait for pre-med students to reach the upper-level classes, because the resources do not exist to accommodate large numbers of students in those classes, perhaps we should consider reallocating our University’s assets rather than sticking with the “weed-out” tactic. There already exists a dearth of physicians in the United States — why should we be discouraging students who are willing to chase a medical degree, when we so desperately need them to exist? By labeling certain classes “weed-out” courses and, it seems, adjusting the structure of the classes and their tests accordingly, colleges around the country are very likely preventing passionate, driven, incredibly talented students from entering professional fields.

Ashley Spinks’ column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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