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Columnist Franklin Li evaluates the merits of the College's sector requirements.

Credit: Bamelak Duki

If you ask an upperclassman in the College of Arts and Sciences who is neither a biology nor a psychology major, chances are they have taken PSYC 0001, “Introduction to Experimental Psychology” to satisfy the Living World sector requirement. If they are not a physics or chemistry major — and they are not on the pre-med track — ask what they have taken to satisfy the Physical World sector requirement. It is a good bet that they had taken either EESC 1000, “Earth Systems Science” or ENVS 1000, “Introduction to Environmental Science.”

The contrast is interesting. While more than 30 courses satisfy each of the other sector requirements in the College every semester, there are only around a dozen that fulfill the Living World and the Physical World requirements, respectively.

Many among these are known to be difficult classes, such as introductory physics, chemistry, and biology courses. “It’s just hard, you know, that class. I think it serves as a weeder,” College first year Abraham Medina, a neuroscience major, testified about a chemistry course that satisfies the Physical World requirement. Other classes often delve into niche topics that may not be interesting to a non major. This leaves a non major, who wishes to enhance their GPA with general education courses and have a great experience, with only a few choices.

College first year Victor Xu, a mathematical economics major, explains his rationale for taking PSYC 0001. “Honestly, there are not many courses that satisfy the Living World requirement. I thought psychology would be interesting, and many upperclassmen have taken this course and said that grades are good, so I decided to take it. But if I did not have the Living World requirement, I probably would not take this class, or maybe take it later as an elective.”

The College advocates on its website that the curriculum has a “flexible structure” composed of general education, major, and elective courses. This is true in general. I genuinely appreciate the College’s flexible curriculum, which allows many electives, and Penn offers various opportunities for interdisciplinary explorations.

But the Physical and Living World sector requirements seem strangely rigid, compared to both other College sector requirements and other undergraduate schools’ general education requirements. Why doesn’t the College add more courses that satisfy these two sectors? Or why not combine the two into a Natural World requirement so that there are more choices?

What I had found concerning was crowding in certain courses such as PSYC 0001. Oftentimes, I have felt that crowding is a worrisome phenomenon: It pushes people to make choices blindly and diminishes diversity. In the context of course selection, it also exhausts spots for certain courses while leaving others largely unused, creating imbalanced experiences of either being in extra large or small classes.

While the College unintentionally created this crowding, other universities deliberately limit students’ choices. Columbia, for example, gives students no choice for all of the six sectors in its famous core curriculum. Though students have found the core burdensome, the curriculum, according to the school website, establishes an “intimate intellectual community that spans disciplines and interests.”

It may be hard to create such tight-knit intellectual communities given the curriculum policy at the College. But, we could argue that these crowded general education courses have helped us form new friend groups. We could also have these “crowded” courses to thank as conversation starters during coffee chats with upperclassmen and alumni. At the very least, we expanded our knowledge into a realm that we might not otherwise dabble in. And what is wrong about learning a bit more about psychology or environmental science along with other students at Penn?

The way to make everyone satisfied would probably still be to expand course choices for the Physical World and the Living World requirement, or to cancel them completely. But since this is unlikely to happen when we are at Penn, we might instead just appreciate these crowded classes for creating a shared body of knowledge among us.

FRANKLIN LI is a College first year from Beijing. His email is