Keep your eyes open for the October issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a debate on the merits of Times New Roman, an examination of Columbia’s updated sexual assault policy, and the festive search for magic on campus. Here, senior editor Sylvie Krekow does the math on Barnard’s Nine Ways of Knowing.

Millie Ain't Dancin' Here

Illustration by Liz Lee

Columbia College has one set of requirements: the Core Curriculum, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the school. Despite a few additions (most recently Frontiers of Science in 2004), the Core serves as a common educational thread running from the class of 1919 through current students.

Across Broadway at Barnard, there is no Core – instead, students fill their general education requirements through the “Nine Ways of Knowing,” introduced in 2000, which aim to “ensure that each Barnard graduate confronts and engages with central ways of knowing the world,” according to Associate Provost Angela Haddad. Barnard students must take at least one semester under the “Cultures in Comparison,” “Historical Studies,” “Laboratory Sciences,” “Language,” “Literature,” “Quantitative and Deductive Reasoning,” “Ethics and Value” (formerly “Reason and Value”), “Social Analysis,” and “Visual and Performing Arts” umbrellas. But just what that means, both in the cosmic sense of what is unique and Barnardian about the Ways and in the practical sense of just what the Ways are, is rarely clear.

Of the “Reason and Value” name change, Haddad said it was “changed to Ethics and Values to clarify the emphasis upon courses that focus on the complexities of ethical and moral reasoning.” This change seems tenuous and arbitrary at best, and points out a larger issue within the “Nine Ways” — words like “ethics” and “value” sound nice, but there does not seem to be anything uniquely Barnardian about them (much like all the other Ways), nor is there a clear definition to them. This would all be easier to digest if Barnard did not insist there was something different and special about the “Nine Ways,” but the administrative body as a whole seems determined to distinguish them, especially from Columbia’s Core.

Why nine ways? The answer is unclear. Haddad simply says that these “ways of knowing–divided into nine key areas–include, but also bridge, the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences.” That leaves mysteries: Are eight forms of ambiguously worded academic general education requirements simply not enough? What is the real, hard difference between “Social Analysis” and “Cultures in Comparison?” And how does something like “Language” and “Laboratory Sciences” “bridge traditional disciplines” in art and science?

Purportedly, being able to choose from a variety of classes that fulfill each way of knowing allows each Barnard student to design her own education with “maximum flexibility,” notes the Barnard website helpfully. For example, if a student needs to fulfill the “Historical Studies,” she can enroll in the traditional “Ancient Greek History 80-146 BC,” or she can jump continents and centuries to “Gandhi’s India.”

For all of Barnard’s insistence that the “Nine Ways” are uniquely “Barnard” and flexible, there is much overlap with existing liberal arts curricula, even the Core.  Both first years at CC and BC have to take a type of freshman-year writing class; later, both sets of students will have to take the same number of language, physical education, science, arts, and literature credits. One could also argue that Barnard’s “Laboratory Science” and “Quantitative Reasoning” “ways of knowing” are the same things under different titles – both require an introductory science class and an additional two semesters of another science class. The overlap goes beyond a recognized similarity in educational philosophies; it points out that Barnard’s quirky and recent Ways, in truth, provide about as much freedom and “maximum flexibility” as the Core.

And that limited flexibility can sometimes get lost in the confusion as to what class can flex to which Way.  According to Haddad, the “Committee on Instruction” meets every other week and has “regularly reviewed the lists of courses approved to fill the Nine Ways.” COI, chaired by the Provost and consisting of several faculty members and other Barnard staff (including the Registrar and four BC students elected by the SGA), frequently reviews the general education requirements and also hears petitions from students about whether a particular course fulfills one of the “Nine Ways.”  There’s even a “Student Appeal” form available on the Barnard site to students who wish to petition the COI to count a course for a Way.

In spite of these mechanisms (or perhaps this is the reason for their existence), confusion persists.  A list titled “Courses Evaluated and Denied General Education Requirement Designation” is available on the Barnard website, detailing which designations were denied for which classes, and which designation they satisfy instead. “Traditions of African American Dance” was denied a “Cultures in Comparison” requirement, but satisfied “Social Analysis” and “Visual and Performing Arts.” (A “Cultures in Comparison” class is supposed to “study the commonality of human experience, examining personal cultural assumptions, ideologies, and values,” whereas a “Social Analysis” class will “investigate central concepts of the social sciences, critically examining social structure and the impact of individual and group behavior.”) This class is not alone in its official ambiguity; one anonymous Barnard student said that “while requirements are needed, there are so many things about the Nine Ways that do not make any fucking sense.”

To Barnard and the COI’s credit, many students seem to be happy with the “Nine Ways.” “I like how the Nine Ways of Knowing are designed to expose you to a wide variety of disciplines yet aren’t as rigidly defined as the Core,” waxed one Barnard student. She went on to say that because of the requirements, she ended up having to take an intro to urban sociology class and switched her major–perhaps the best example of the Ways’ goal and potential. But any solid set of general requirements can accomplish this standing on its own, without arbitrary designations and academic buzzword-laden, obscured phrases. The Barnard general education requirements is strong enough to stand alone, if only the administration would let them.