As class schedules were released last week and registration opened, many students will spend the next few months strategizing about how to fulfill the College of Arts and Science’s diverse Sector and Foundational requirements.
But although these 16 required credits will have a significant impact on most College students’ academic careers, few know their history or how they fit into broader trends in higher education.
According to Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman, this history has been a “gradual evolution.” A 20-year veteran of Penn, he has seen some of the changes in Penn’s undergraduate requirements as head of the College’s Sector Requirement Committee.
In 1987, Penn significantly restructured its undergraduate requirements, dropping a three-tiered distribution of classes — humanities, sciences and social sciences — in favor of seven sector requirements that looked somewhat similar to what exists today. Students had to take 10 courses across the seven disciplines, plus a language requirement.
In the following two decades, Penn added a number of single-course requirements in response to perceived student needs, said Peterman, including the writing requirement in 1993 and the Quantitative Data Analysis requirement in 1997.
Then, in 2000, Penn looked to “shake things up,” Peterman said. Starting with that year’s freshman class and continuing for four years, the College selected 200 students to eschew the established requirements and instead take four specially created interdisciplinary classes as their general education.
“It enabled us to have a very fruitful conversation about the advantages and disadvantages [of the system],” Peterman said. “We tried to answer the question, ‘How do students construct an undergraduate education if they are in charge of the curriculum?’”
But the results were not that different, and when the faculty convened in 2006 to use the information from the pilot, the actual changes were conservative: some requirements were juggled, Foundational Approaches were formalized with the addition of a Cross-Cultural Analysis requirement and the number of classes needed to satisfy the Sectors was dropped to seven.
Only a year later, students and faculty championed a requirement to study multiculturalism within the country, leading to the addition of Cultural Diversity in the U.S.
According to Peterman, additions like Cross-Cultural Analysis and Cultural Diversity in the U.S. were indirectly outgrowths of a national focus on multiculturalism abroad in the wake of 9/11, and at home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
At this point, Peterman said, the College Office isn’t itching to make further changes.
“It was an arduous process,” he said of the curriculum review.
With a few notable exceptions, peer schools have come to similar results.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and Dartmouth all have some form of curriculum based around distribution requirements. In 2008, Harvard replaced its “Core Curriculum” — which, despite its name, was a distributional system that required different subject areas for different majors — to a slimmer and more standardized “Program in General Education,” requiring a class in each of eight different areas.
Similarly, in 2005 Yale revamped its curriculum, adding a writing requirement and distinguishing between classes that build skills and satisfy subject areas, much like Penn’s distinction between Sector Requirements and Foundational Approaches.
One school whose curriculum didn’t change after a recent review was Brown University’s — largely because it doesn’t have one. While other schools were moving toward more flexible distribution requirements in the 1960s, Brown eschewed them altogether. And in a 2007 comprehensive review, the school’s Task Force on Undergraduate Education didn’t seek to change that.
“What the task force did was affirm the value of open curriculum,” Brown Associate Dean of the Curriculum Kathleen McSharry said. “Our report clearly states that the open curriculum should and will continue. It’s the heart and soul of undergraduate experience at Brown.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Columbia University, whose rigorous Core Curriculum has not changed significantly since 1968. Shortly after World War I, Columbia introduced its “Contemporary Civilization” course, which became the building block of what are now six required classes that all students take, in addition to broader language, physical education, science and multicultural requirements.
According to Penn intellectual history professor Bruce Kuklick, the trend in American higher education is away from prescriptive core courses like Columbia’s and the University of Chicago’s, and toward distribution requirements like Penn’s.
“In the 1960s, cultural revolution spurred getting rid of requirements,” said Kuklick, who graduated from Penn with a philosophy degree in 1963. He recalled taking a rigid core of year-long literature, history and science courses; though there was some choice, it was relatively little.
But Kuklick said the trends away from structure have had some negative consequences.
“Since the 1970s, there has been a struggle to maintain coherence in general education,” Kuklick said. “But at the same time, the pressure is to dilute what it means to be a requirement.”
For Peterman, that is something the Sector Committee works to avoid by making sure the courses that fulfill each Sector are carefully selected.
“That’s where the ongoing work resides,” he said. “Not so much looking at structure, but refining the goals within each requirement.”
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