College. The time to take interesting classes, broaden your interests, and discover new passions. Growing up, I listened to my teachers as they gushed over the wacky and obscure classes they were able to take during their college years.
I heard about memorable courses from my older college friends and was excited to finally learn what I wanted to, without being limited by my high school’s strict requirements and the general AP curriculum. But, within months of being at college, I soon realized that Penn offers little in terms of academic freedom.
While Penn has a variety courses in my major (Biological Basis of Behavior), the ability to take fun, interest-driven classes is rather limited.
Other universities boast their wide selection of courses. At the University of Washington, there is a seminar that invites students to create their own music and video remixes as a form of cultural commentary. Middlebury College offers “Building the Japanese Boat”, a class that actually spends its semester building a traditional Japanese boat and “understanding the cultural underpinnings of apprentice learning”. At Cornell, the final project for “Science and Technology of Foods” is a competition among teams to develop the best ice cream flavor.
These classes are not only unique and niche, but also highly interactive and imaginative in a way that many Penn classes are not.
After searching for interesting Penn courses, the most engaging ones I found were “Samba Ensemble”, known for being “the easiest class at Penn”, and the famous RELS256 class, “Existential Despair”. It really says something about campus culture when one of the most popular classes consists of organized existential crises. Perhaps there are classes more interesting than five hours of silent reading and two hours of intense discussion every week, but if there are, they are not advertised well. The global seminars, for example, provide excellent opportunities to travel abroad—but it seems like few people are aware of their existence.
At the same time, Penn has a lot of general requirements that make it tough to fit classes, like the ones previously mentioned, into one’s schedule. While other schools may have similar requirements, they seem to have a greater variety of classes that fulfill them. Many students at Penn praise Freshman Seminars for their uniqueness, but liberal arts colleges like Pomona and Middlebury tend to take a step further and require freshmen to enroll in such seminars, instead of offering them as options.
Should colleges require freshmen seminars? On one hand, they are known to have supportive and collaborative atmospheres that give freshmen the platform to form some of their first friendships. On the other, Penn’s campus is infamous for being ridiculously pre-professional. With Wharton freshmen already forming start-ups and pre-meds scrambling to take classes that will help with the MCAT, it is hard to say if Penn kids would like to take courses outside of their intended areas of study. Maybe a class like “Psychology and the Good Life”, which teaches 1,200 Yale students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life, would be useful to deconstruct the “Penn face” and reduce stress around campus.
Although boat building and ice cream making sound incredibly appealing, taking too many of these courses may pose a problem when it comes time to apply to graduate school. From medicine to law, undergraduate matriculates often choose to take classes that will prepare them for more advanced education. However, it may be in the benefit of one’s mental health to experience unorthodox methods of teaching and take classes that embrace the importance of creativity and imagination.
At the very least, perhaps more options should be available for those who wish to take them.