Imagine All the Learning

By Sean Carroll | October 12, 2006 4:54 pm

Harvard University is once again re-thinking its basic curriculum for undergraduates (via PZ). This matters, of course, since Harvard is unanimously recognized as the World’s Greatest University (or at least that’s what they told me when I was there). Opinions differ, as you might expect, about what should be the basic course of study we expect to be mastered by every student obtaining a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university. At a place like St. John’s College, every student takes exactly the same classes — and every professor is expected to teach every class, from Physics to Classics. At the other end of the spectrum, some places basically allow students to choose their own course of study, without any specifically required courses.

Most academics feel that what they went through as a student is right for everyone, and in this case I’m no exception. I went to a upright Catholic institution, where the required core curriculum was substantially lengthier than anything you’ll come across in the Ivy League. There were requirements in all the canonical disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences, with some degree of flexibility within each category. I think it’s a good system; undergraduates don’t necessarily know best about what they might like to learn (who does?), and sometimes even things that you don’t enjoy might be good for you.

So here is the curriculum I would insist on if I were the Emperor of Learning. The courses every college undergraduate should take:

  • Two semesters of English Literature. (No specific writing requirement, but writing would be emphasized in many of the courses across the board.)
  • Three semesters of History, at least one of American history and one of non-American history.
  • Some degree of proficiency in a foreign language, as measured by some standardized test.
  • Two semesters of Philosophy or Religious Studies.
  • Three semesters of Social Sciences, at least one but not all to be in Economics.
  • Two semesters of Mathematics, either a year of Calculus or one semester each of Statistics and Algebra/Geometery at a fairly high level.
  • Two semesters of Physical Science — Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, etc.
  • Two semesters of Biological Science.
  • One semester of Fine Arts.

(At Villanova there was no fine arts requirement, and only one year of science was required. But we had to take three semesters of Philosophy and three semesters of Religious Studies.) I don’t think I would require any non-English literature, as reading in translation is fun but not necessarily central. I also wouldn’t require any lab component to the science courses, which I’m sure will cause howls of outrage. I believe firmly in the importance of experiment and that the scientific method is grounded in empirical exploration etc. etc. But I also know from experience that every lab course that I either took myself or served as a TA for, not to put too fine a point on it, sucked. They served mostly to turn students off of science forever. Maybe I have simply been unlucky, but lab courses would require some deep re-thinking before I would include them in the required curriculum.

Let’s see, four years of college, two semesters per year, four courses per semester means that a student will take at least 32 courses as an undergraduate (they are welcome to take more courses per semester, of course). The above list comes to 17 courses, at least if they’re lucky enough to test out of the language requirement. Imagine that a typical major (or “concentration,” as they say at the WGU) insists on 10 courses in that discipline; but any given discipline will probably cover two semesters worth of the above requirements, so really only 8 more required courses. That gives a total of 25 required courses, leaving 7 completely free electives. They could be taken within the student’s major, or anywhere else. So everyone gets one course almost every semester just to have fun. (Double majors would likely require students to take extra courses; worse things could happen.)

While I think it’s good to demand that students take a long list of breadth requirements, I would be extremely flexible when it came to the required courses for a major. If I were in charge, every student could design their own major by proposing a program of study of 10 or more courses that somehow hung together to form a sensible story, even if it didn’t fit comfortably within any of the existing academic departments. So you could major in biological physics, or philosophical psychology, or the history of ideas, or German studies, or what have you. A standing committee of the University would judge all such proposals for coherence and rigor, and the successful student would be awarded a B.A. or B.S. in whatever they called their made-up program. (None of this is exactly original, to be sure.)

Different strokes for different folks, of course. Even if I were Emperor, I wouldn’t want the same set of requirements to hold at every university; a great strength of our decentralized system of higher education is that individual schools can serve as laboratories for innovation, which is a feature rather than a bug. At Caltech every undergraduate is required to take a year of calculus-based physics, for example; that probably wouldn’t work for everybody. (They also don’t admit people as English majors, although you’re allowed to switch into “Humanities” if you make that choice once you are here. Not sure what social pressures such people must feel.) But I still believe in the ideal of a broadly-based education in the liberal arts and sciences, where everyone who graduates from college knows something about the theory of evolution, the history of the Roman Empire, the law of supply and demand, and the categorical imperative. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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