I’ve learned about the life of a star in my "Survey of the Universe" class. I’ve talked about social justice in Spanish with my professor. I’ve even analyzed my own DNA in a biology freshman seminar. One of the reasons that I flew 9,000 miles to the opposite hemisphere to attend university was that I wanted to be able to take classes about everything. But by the time I finished freshman year, I realized Penn had gone overboard with the quantity of general education requirements, sacrificing the quality of the major in the process.
Penn’s liberal arts education, and the general ubiquity of liberal arts curriculums across the United States, is a point of pride for the country’s education system. Not only do students get exposed to more topics in order to more effectively choose a major, but they also become well-rounded, contributing citizens.
For example, in my home country of New Zealand, if I were a candidate for a Bachelor's of Arts at the University of Auckland, I would to take two general education classes outside of the degree. What if I couldn’t decide between astronomy, jazz performance and chemistry? Sorry, they’d say, you have to pick two. Most other degrees are even more restrictive than the B.A.
But at Penn, we see the opposite extreme. The same B.A. usually entails taking 12 classes for the major and a staggering 20 courses in general education or electives.
Twenty out of 32 classes are unrelated to the major. The College of Arts and Sciences has good pedagogical intentions, but to only spend 37 percent of college learning about a passion that will lead to a lifelong career is completely unbalanced. The sheer number of non-major related requirements compromises the quality of the major. The College must require fewer electives and instead use the space for more adequate development of each major.
Why study a single major in depth? Because, to obtain only a surface-level understanding of a particular concentration in college warrants the pursuit of further education. By following the current curriculum, Penn forgets that many students do not have the opportunity to attend graduate school. For many reasons, not all students can or wish to continue studying. The undergraduate level should aim to extend students beyond basic understanding. It should not be left up to “professional school” for students to thrive professionally. An egalitarian-thinking institute of higher education should recognize this.
Aside from the general education qualms, the current structure (or lack thereof) within each major also requires substantial revision. For many social science and humanities majors, there is no required progression of courses as freshmen move up classes. For example, in the political science major, courses are mostly free reign. Students choose whichever classes they want, without restrictions of prerequisites or necessary prior knowledge.
Without prerequisite requirements, there is no foundation. You would never build a house roof-first, and you would never learn advanced concepts before foundational. Without a carefully planned multi-step process, students end up gaining random pockets of knowledge here and there, as opposed to a well-rounded and sturdy education.
Although the University of Auckland can learn from Penn’s Sectors and Foundational Approaches, its major requirements constitute a model Penn must consider. Students must take “Stage 1” courses before progressing to “Stage 2.” A sequential order of courses ensures students learn the most important fundamentals before specializing in topics of their choice.
The necessary step is to mandate a progression of courses, as international universities do. Seniors won’t take the same classes as freshmen. Foundations will be constructed and built upon. Graduates will have a solid grasp of the subject, and not merely tidbits of knowledge.
With mutual learning, universities all over the world will hopefully be able to strike a balance between courses for majors and general education. While currently international universities are not doing enough for liberal arts education, Penn must watch out that it is not veering dangerously towards the other extreme of the spectrum.
LUCY HU is a College sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Fresh Take” usually appears every other Wednesday.
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