It’s official: Course selection for next semester has begun. The unusual number of Penn seniors planning to take classes like “Ideas in Mathematics,” “Oceanography,” “Survey of the Universe” and “Sex and Human Nature” might be puzzling to those unfamiliar with Penn’s arcane general education system, or, as it is known officially, the “Sectors of Knowledge.” But, as many students in the College of Arts & Sciences might have found, the sector requirements seem to focus more on Sector VIII: The Navigation of Bureaucracy, rather than on actually giving students a well-rounded liberal arts education.
Although we support Penn’s belief that students should take courses in a wide variety of fields, the strict requirements of the sector system lead to absurd and self-defeating consequences. For example, it is perfectly plausible for a chemistry major to reach senior year without having fulfilled Sector VI: Physical World or Sector VII: Natural Sciences & Mathematics, because typically only one course can double count for a major and a sector requirement. Similarly, many students have gone through the frustrating experience of taking upper or graduate-level courses only to be told they do not fulfill any requirements, like the math major who took an upper-level statistics course only to be told it did not fulfill the Quantitative Data Analysis Foundational Approach.
If the purpose of the sector system is really to help students “develop general skills or approaches to knowledge and to engage students in the intellectual work of the disciplines in a variety of fields,” it seems that the current structure of the requirements is not actually conducive to truly broad learning. Though we have nothing personal against the field of oceanography, it does not stretch the imagination to think that the majority of liberal art majors napping through lectures on the layers of the ocean are not learning all that much about scientific inquiry and study. In the same vein, is a physics major taking “Monsters in Film and Literature” to fulfill the Arts and Letters sector requirement really learning something meaningful about literature if the course is the only non science one they take?
Penn needs to make the sector requirements for the College more flexible and more true to the spirit of a diverse education. Instead of the seemingly random selection of courses which fulfill the sector requirements, any course that clearly covers the material of a given sector should count towards that sector. Any physics class should count towards Physical World, just like any English class should count for Arts and Letters.
In fact, every course offered in the College — and numerous courses offered by the Wharton School, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Nursing — should be able to fulfill at least one requirement, or at least be petitionable. After all, a class that cannot be characterized as any of the seven sectors probably isn’t worth being taught, at least in the College. We strongly believe the College should change its rules regarding required coursework. Otherwise, sector requirements will remain what they have become: easy courses to sleep through and boxes to check on a student’s way out to graduation.
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