Neta Horesh-Bar is a business administration sophomore and opinion columnist for Mustang News. Her views reflected in this piece don’t necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
I contemplated dropping out of college last night.
And a couple of weeks ago, and a few months before that. Not in the “ha ha relatable” way, but rather in the unsettlingly genuine way. In the hopelessly confused way; one that does not seem to be as universal nor salvageable — one that makes me feel lost within the institution at which I am supposed to be finding myself.
Throughout a multitude of sleepless nights, frantic meetings with academic advisors and defeated conversations with family and friends, I have internalized this turbulence as something that was at the fault of my own personality, whether it be indecision, lack of direction or maybe even incompetence. I labeled myself as incapable or less intellectually qualified than my peers for the undergraduate experience.
What I consistently failed to consider with each self deprecating sentiment was a crucial part of every equation: situational context.
At the peak of each tumultuous crisis was the question of why. Why does it have to be this way? What is it about college that makes an end goal feel so far away, and fulfillment feel so impossible?
Cal Poly is known for its famous emphasis on major specific classes with far less regard for all things general education. This, in turn, eliminates the opportunity for an “undeclared” major –– an option that the vast majority of academic institutions of all sizes and levels of prestige across the country offer to their students, typically for the first two years of their undergraduate education.
The absence of an undeclared major poses a plethora of issues, especially when compounded with other deeply flawed aspects of our university’s academic structure, such as the stringent and sometimes near impossible change of major process. With rigid requirements that ultimately discourage students from even considering switching majors, we are confined to neat little boxes with titles like “Business Administration” or “Mechanical Engineering.” Instead of utilizing our academic years to learn about ourselves, about what it is that makes us feel passionate in this world, we must stay within the boundaries of our fields of study.
Cal Poly operates under an “upside down curriculum.” For those unfamiliar with this, it is exactly what it sounds like: students start their undergraduate careers with major classes without much wiggle room to explore other fields of study in their freshman year. From there, we advance to higher division major courses with general education requirements trickled in sporadically throughout our years at college.
Under the guise of “Learn by Doing,” the upside down curriculum minimizes the importance of general education courses and disqualifies the benefits of a liberal arts education, undermining humanities classes in particular. Cal Poly leverages this curriculum to downplay the importance of humanistic courses, classes that would actually challenge students to think deeply and with intention.
College is by no means meant to be easy. However, it does not sit right with me that my education was nothing but depleting, with each day feeling more disheartening than the last. School had never felt like this before; I used to be inspired and wholeheartedly engaged with all that I was privileged enough to learn.
No matter how challenging school became, I was always of the belief that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of knowledge are one and the same. My education was not just a means to an end, but a channel for contentment and joy. But this method of learning left me at a university of such high academic rigor feeling like I was learning nothing at all?
At Cal Poly, we learn the how, but not the why. We’re given ample tools to excel in our respective fields. However, what’s missing is the ethics, the social awareness and the humanity that is inherently intertwined with any career –– STEM or otherwise. With our curriculum and what it prioritizes, we teach our students that the Women and Gender Studies class they have to take is just ‘fluff’ or that the Political Science course they must sit through will never actually be applicable. They are merely a graduation requirement.
In reality, these courses will actually be some of the most important that we ever have the privilege to take. Cal Poly’s academic structure fails us by indirectly pushing the narrative that learning these things don’t matter. This philosophy is fallacious, and in turn, our degrees are incomplete.
With little to no flexibility to take classes that could elicit fascination and we may otherwise never experience, students are tied down to the majors that they chose at seventeen years of age. The trajectory of their early career is completely shaped by Cal Poly’s lack of freedom to explore.
The question of why lingers in my head, but now in a completely different context. What is the benefit of trapping students into majors that the majority of them did not put much thought into in their senior year of high school? How would they know themselves well enough at that point in their lives to know what they’re meant to study?
The answer is that we don’t. Cal Poly students are trusted at far too young of an age to know what we want for our future, and then bound to this decision for the following four years as a consequence of a culture of glorified career-orientation and self-sufficiency.
Instead of nurturing well-rounded curiosity, Cal Poly prioritizes competitive performance and mass-producing graduates with an impressive set of marketable skills and yet an incomplete capacity to critically think. While college should be a time for students to understand how they fit into the world as citizens, we are instead reduced to one role alone: employees.