Gates: Add government, economics to Weinberg distribution requirements


Matt Gates, Columnist

For most of our lives, late October has probably meant Halloween. Maybe it has also meant the onset of cold weather. But for the first, or one of the first times in our lives, it also means election season. We prepare to fill out our absentee ballots, head to the polling booth or neglect the process altogether. But are we really informed enough to be voters?

Northwestern students are smart. We did well in high school courses, got high standardized test scores and excelled at our extracurriculars. We keep up with the rigorous quarter system, balance our activities and maybe hold down a job as well.

I have been blown away by the academic brilliance of some of my peers since coming to NU, but I have also observed how many of us sometimes lack knowledge that any American ideally should have. Although we might be outstanding writers or great at chemistry, we might not have a basic understanding of how someone becomes a presidential candidate or where our taxes go. Requiring classes on the basics of the U.S. government and economy would be beneficial to the NU student body at little cost to existing requirements.

One would think students would have a basic understanding of their country’s government and economy before reaching college, especially at a prestigious college like NU. However, these topics are easily skipped over in high schools where teachers are expected to focus on preparing students for standardized tests required for graduation, college admission or college credit. Knowing what kinds of questions are on the HSPA, how to take the SAT and being able to write a document-based question essay does not prepare students to vote or manage their own finances.

NU requires that Weinberg students take courses in certain areas to “become familiar with a broad range of problems and the methodologies for approaching them, acquiring the breadth of interests and intellectual flexibility that are hallmarks of a well-educated person.”

Weinberg’s distribution courses are intended to help students think broadly and force them to try different areas. But it’s not even Winter Quarter before freshmen realize the truth about distribution credits: They are often used to pad one’s GPA with an “easy A” rather than take a risk by exploring an unfamiliar area of study. Although exploring different areas is an important aspect of a liberal arts education, Weinberg students could afford to take a couple fewer of the existing distribution credit classes in place of courses that could be more practical.

One might argue that how our government and economy work are things we should hurry up and figure out on our own by this point. I agree to an extent, but I also believe that NU is up to the task of preparing us to function as successful adults.

Will awareness of economics and government help us in our careers? I would like to think so, but that is not necessarily the reason to take every class that we take. Knowledge of these fields is necessary for us to live as independent adults and participate in the political process. Being able to think broadly and understand our academic disciplines of choice is important, but understanding our government and economy is essential when we go to the ballot box.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].