Letter to the Editor: H&SS strengthened by diversity

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

I write in reaction to the Sept. 26 Tartan editorial entitled “Dietrich Pride Day indicates deeper H&SS problems.” I found myself both bemused and bothered by this piece.
First, the suggestion that criticisms of the recent Dietrich Pride Day — not enough food, fewer giveaways, imperfect venue — signal “deeper problems” in the college reflects a leap of logic that is, frankly, silly. But no matter, as this was simply the chosen segue to the editorial’s main criticisms of the college:

  1. The diversity of its programs (“from statistics and English to information systems and cognitive science”) makes it the “grab bag” college (I presume this was meant negatively), lacking in focus and unable to define itself in "unifying terms.”
  2. The college has the added problem of “being a liberal arts college in the midst of a university where liberal arts degrees are not taken as seriously.”
  3. The college suffers from lingering negative stereotypes, such as being the “last choice” college for many of its students who didn’t get into their “first choice colleges.”

Then, interestingly, at the bottom of column two, the editorial offers very positive comments about the college, and then seems to complain that the university fails to give it its due in terms of attention and funding so that it can “build an identity.”

Then back to the negative: Rather than make efforts to address the deeper problems (lack of identity; “no singular academic goal, no ‘anchor’ by which to unify its students”; no “singular, branded identity”), the college administration has “again and again chosen to apply only topical remedies, of which Dietrich Pride Day is one such case.” It concludes: “Before students can be proud to be part of a unified H&SS, they need something to be proud of.”

My reactions, in reverse order:

The university’s undergraduate admissions office reports that the number of students applying for admission to Carnegie Mellon and Dietrich College who name this as their “first choice” college within Carnegie Mellon is as high as it’s ever been, and is by far the rule rather than the exception for the students who the college enrolls. And while I cannot cite definitively reliable data regarding where in their hierarchy of college choices Carnegie Mellon and Dietrich College fell for our students, my sense from many encounters with prospective students and their parents in recent years is that the college can hardly be characterized as the “'last choice’ college for many of its students” as the editorial so casually claims.

Then there is the claim that the college “faces the ... problem of being a liberal arts college in the midst of a university where liberal arts degrees are not taken as seriously.” I’m left to wonder what definition of “liberal arts” the editors are using here. Merriam-Webster defines liberal arts as: “(C)ollege or university studies ... intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.” If this was the intended characterization, it is far off the mark. The college has long been recognized nationally as a cutting-edge example of how “liberal” and “professional” education are not antithetical, but complementary, in the ways that it has shaped its programs within the college, and in partnership with other units of the university. And how ironic that the rest of the university, by implication, is characterized as purely vocational and disdainful of the liberal arts when Carnegie Tech was in fact the birthplace of the “Carnegie Plan” for professional education, which extolled the virtues of professional training complemented by the liberal arts that would not only train one for a profession, but that would also educate one for engaged and responsible citizenship.

Finally, there is the observation that the college has a “great range of diversity” in its departments and programs, but that this results in a lamentable “lack of focus,” and an inability to define itself “in unifying terms” or build a “singular, branded identity.” Here I agree with the editors’ observations about the college’s intellectual and artistic diversity, but I come to radically different conclusions about its significance. Dietrich College is a very diverse college in terms of departments and major programs, and proud of it. In how many colleges — here or anywhere — can you boast of having on the faculty a National Book Award winner, and world-class scholars in cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, Bayesian statistics, language learning theory, and social history? This diversity does indeed make it very hard to seize on any single image, label, or brand, but is this a liability as the editorial implies? I think not. Rather, it is our strength and distinction, and not a weakness at all.

Moreover, Dietrich College faculty and students in these diverse areas collaborate in ways that continue to amaze me, linking seemingly disparate disciplines in ways that reflect what a colleague of mine in social and decision sciences calls the true, if elusive, “unity of knowledge.”

So rest assured, Dietrich College students: You have made a “great choice” of college, in ways that you may have only begun to discover and appreciate.