Editorial: Distribution requirements should have pass/fail option

Tufts students in the School of Arts and Sciences are familiar with the struggle of fulfilling requirements. In addition to major requirements and foundation requirements — two semesters of writing, six semesters of language and culture, and one world civilizations credit — students must also take several classes to complete the distribution requirements. This includes two courses each in the humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences and math. One course cannot count toward more than one academic area and no classes can be taken pass/fail.

The load is heavy, but it’s not without purpose; Tufts Arts and Sciences students supposedly graduate as well-rounded citizens with exposure to a wide variety of ideas and disciplines. The intent behind the distribution requirement is worthy, but its implementation creates challenges for students and actually ends up hindering its own goal.

Many Tufts students get excited at the prospect of studying new disciplines, but some introductory courses are notoriously difficult, particularly for non-majors whose specialties lie elsewhere. This makes higher-level courses almost completely inaccessible to them. So what’s a busy Tufts student to do? Many opt for classes that they believe to be easier, afraid to damage their GPAs in areas outside their academic comfort zones. Some groan at the need to take a course in a discipline they may not have studied since high school. They end up taking classes with little relevance to their interests, focused more on surviving the class with minimal effort than on broadening their educational horizons. Though the distribution requirement is designed to encourage students to be more intellectually adventurous, its stringent rules render it ineffective; ultimately, the requirements deter academic risk-taking.

Rather than get rid of distribution requirements, as some have proposed, Tufts should offer a pass/fail option. Allowing students to fulfill requirements pass/fail would make the course load less daunting, giving them more free rein to take classes that interest and challenge them. Students in the School of Engineering are already given the opportunity to take HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) requirements pass/fail. While engineering students do have a heavy course load, students on the pre-med or pre-vet track or who have double majors also have many required classes. Reducing the stress associated with distribution requirements would encourage those students to explore areas of interest that may seem daunting combined with their existing course load. The introduction of a pass/fail option for distribution requirements would also encourage students to pursue disciplines that may be useful for their future careers; for example, more students may take courses in computer science, which is known to be challenging, especially for students who are already intimidated by it.

It has been decades since the distribution requirement has been effectively changed; it’s about time the administration introduce practical modifications that could not only reduce the stress levels of students but, more importantly, encourage them to take full advantage of the intellectual opportunities offered by a Tufts education.