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.

  • David Syzdek

    Good article and I really agree with you. However (here come the howls) as a scientist I think exposure to a lab or field class is probably important. However, a lot of the entry level lab classes that I took were pretty painful and they probably turn people off of science with lab work that is mundane. However, I think everyone should learn how to use a microscope, telescope, look at rocks and roadcuts on a field trip, learn some plant and animals species in the field. I really don’t know what the ideal solution would be….

  • JoAnne

    Hmmm, I agree with the philosophy that everyone should have a broad and well-rounded education. That’s a good thing overall. However, it’s a bit of a squeeze to also fit in a solid physics education with only 15 courses (and that assumes that one tests out of the langauge requirement or chooses not to learn a second langauge or chooses not to become even more proficient in a single langauge). I counted my undergraduate courses that I consider to be essential for a decent physics major education. It’s a bit difficult to translate for 2 reasons – I was on the quarter system, and I was a Physics/Math double major. Leaving out the Math classes that I will arbitrarily call non-essential (and leaving out the 1st year physics and calculus sequences) here’s what I had:

    Sophomore Quantum: 2 semesters
    Special Relativity: 1 semester
    Classical Mechanics: 1.5 semesters (hard to translate 2 quarters of material into semesters)
    E&M: 1.5 semesters (ditto)
    Stat Mech: 1 semester
    Senior Quantum: 2 semesters
    1 Senior Special Topics Course (I took HEP, other choices were Solid State or Optics): 1 semester
    Multi-variable Calc/Diff EQ/Linear Algebra sequence: 2 semesters
    Partial Diff EQ: 1 semester
    Math Methods: 2 semesters
    If one is going to be a serious physicist, it is hard to see what should be cut from the above.

  • JoAnne

    Oh – thank you David Syzdek, I forgot to count my junior lab course! (Guess it didn’t impress much on my theory bent brain…) That’s another semester of physics class to add to the list.

  • Cameron

    As an undergrad I took a Field Ecology course. Once a week we had a six hour adventure out in the wilds of Laramie, Wyoming. We might do an analysis of plant species on the mesa, or collect various species of invertebrates from a river. One excursion had us taking cores from trees to determine ages within a particular plot. We’d then have lab time to analyze our findings and learn how to do proper write-ups. It was the best lab course I took and was well integrated across a variety of disciplines (math, statistics, biology).

  • Elliot

    Why do we need to learn a “foreign” language. American is pretty darn near the universal language isn’t it?


  • bluechip

    Harvard is the best university in the world? I guess I missed that email. Harvard is notorious for having a weak undergraduate program (I know, I was there).

  • citrine

    I would like to suggest two more core courses: one in computer science/ technology and the other a Life Skills class. The computer course (ideally spanning two semesters) could be selected according to the student’s major. The Life Skills class would cover the basics of personal finances, nutrition, exercise, vehicle repair and maintenance, basic home repairs, first aid, etc. that are also needed for a well-rounded life.

  • Brad Holden

    The course outline that Sean presented strikes me as similar to what the University of Chicago required. The side effect was that many undergrads had to take
    courses in the summer, or overload for two of their four years. That was
    kind of hard them.

    I know that I went to a typical liberal arts “take courses that reflect who you are, what you are interested in!” which meant I did not take hard non-science courses (except for linguistics) unless I absolutely had to. It took a lot of years in grad school to begin repairing my deficiencies in history, literature, and art. God help me with regards to the social sciences.

    So, there is a lot to be said for Sean’s proposal. But Joanne’s point about course requirements for the stricter majors means that it would be very difficult for many people, and downright impossible for engineers.

  • Rob Knop

    I’m one who doesn’t think that my undergraduate education is the ideal…

    …but then again, I went to Harvey Mudd College, where it was ideal for the very specialized and peculiar student body that college has. First semester Frosh year, everybody takes the same classes, unless they pass out. Of one of the classes, that is. Chemistry, Physics, first or second semester Calculus, Computer Science (really: How to Program), and “Rhetoric”, a basic English/Writing class. (Yes, 5 classes, plus lab for Chemistry; 5 classes was pretty standard every semester at HMC.) I also took an additional unit (orchestra), but it was gravvy that I got course credit for that.

    Second semester is mostly all the same — now you have a “core elective” and a “core humanities course” to choose from. Third semester it slacks off a bit more, and after that it’s more open. You do your major, and you compete the “Humanities & Social Science” requirements (which amount to 10 courses, 5 in an area of concentration, 5 distributed across fields).

    But… this would be a terrible program for a lot of students. Calculus based chemistry *and* physics all in the first semester. Indeed, as a pre-major advisor, I’d be alarmed if I saw somebody signing up for a schedule like that, unless they were clearly a nerd like myself.

    As for what is *really* the ideal curriculum, I disagree with Sean; I would give the students more flexibility. Yeah, they don’t know what they want to take, but they have some idea. A too heavy core is burdensome, and a too overspecified core means more students in classes that they resent having to take. I’d like them to have the flexibility to experiment with different things and to take various things they like, and the advising that tells them that college is an opportunity to study lots of things, not just to get requirements “out of the way” and do a major or two.

    Then again, different curricula for different students. At Brown, they probably have the right sort of student body that a curriculum of “and it harm none, do what thou wilt”, or something like that. At Harvey Mudd, uberthrashing on all fields of science (I think they include Biology there now too) is appropriate for that student body. At Vanderbilt, either one of those curricula would be a disaster.

  • Sean

    Okay, what I really think is that everyone should be taking five courses per semester, if only to make up for the ridiculously inadequate secondary education provided by the typical U.S. school system.

    But an entire semester of special relativity? That’s just crazy.

  • Count Iblis

    If I were the “Emperor of Learning” I would focus on primary and secondary education. The earlier you learn things, the better. So, I would move linear algebra, calculus and most of the undergraduate stuff that is taught in university to high school.

  • Sean

    Yeah, I was really imagining that I was the Emperor of College. Compared to primary and secondary schools, higher ed in the U.S. is an unimpeachable success.

  • Richard

    I would take one or two semesters away from the three semesters each of history and social science and apply them to cultural anthropology.

  • Jeremy

    I agree with Sean with regards to laboratory courses. As a current undergrad I can attest to the blatant inadequacy of the basic lab courses. Don’t get me wrong, as a physics major I wouldn’t give up my experimental physics course for anything, but the elementary labs that are required of basic physics and chemistry courses are more of a lesson in anger management than the scientific method.

    On the flip side of that is the foreign language requirement (being fluent in another language might be the one thing I’d give up experimental physics for). ‘American’ might be spoken all over, but it only adds to the arrogant american image that we’ve worked so hard to earn. In fact, Boston University requires fluency in a foreign language of their physics graduate students. Bully to them, I say (that sounds foreign, right?)

  • Fred Ross

    I say no requirements, and don’t even make the kids take courses. On the other hand, give them four years, plus a semester’s grace, to graduate, or kick ’em out. Keep the degrees, keep the disciplines. Keep the lab courses, but make them more like intermediate lab (a.k.a., here’s a room full of equipment and a list of experiments to do).

    Foreign language requirements, swimming requirements, humanities requirements, these are all rubbish. If the student isn’t interested, they merely annoy him. If he is interested, they needn’t be required. Further, they make it impossible to pursue some courses of study because they involve a converging set of cumulative skills which take a lot of time to develop. Perhaps a case could be made for foreign language, but in the US language instruction is a joke.

    I don’t buy the “well rounded human being” argument, because as far as I could tell, the students after their required courses were merely shallow and vulgar about things that did not deserve such treatment. The ones I found who knew the most about literature, history, and philosophy at any nontrivial level were scientists and engineers, who didn’t learn it in their required courses.

    Just to put this in perspective, I went to University of Virginia for undergrad, and their honors program cancels all course requirements, gives the students priority registration for courses, and makes things like course prerequisites not apply (I loved it…and did nothing but math and physics). Now I’m in grad school at the Rockefeller University, where there’s no qualifying exam, no departments, and no core set of classes — not to mention no undergrads.

    (And this is why no one would ever dream of putting me in charge of anything involving education.)

  • maths/physics student

    I consider the undergraduate education I obtained at Melbourne University amongst the best in the world. I double phys/maths majored, and here are the classes I took (it’s a 4-yr honours degree):

    Algebra: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Algebraic Topology: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Applied Partial Differential Equations: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Astrophysics: 2 semesters (integrated with 2nd and 3rd yr optics) (2nd & 3rd yrs)
    Complex Analysis: 1 semester (2nd yr)
    Computational Physics: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Cosmology: 1 demi-semester (4th yr)
    Electromagnetism/Classical Electrodynamics: 2 semesters (2nd & 3rd yrs)
    Functional Analysis: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Graph Theory: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    General Relativity: 1 demi-semester (4th yr)
    Integral Transforms & Asymptotics: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Laboratory work: 2 semesters (1st & 2nd yrs)
    Linear Algebra: 1 semester (2nd yr)
    Mathematical Methods: 1 semester (2nd yr)
    Optics: 2 semesters (2nd & 3rd yrs)
    Point-set topology: 1 semester (2nd yr)
    Quantum Mechanics: 2 semesters (2nd & 3rd yrs), 2 demi-semesters (4th yr)
    Quantum Field Theory: 1 demi-semester (4th year)
    Solid State Physics: 1 semester (3rd yr)
    Special Relativity: 1 semester (integrated with 2nd yr electromag) (2nd yr)
    Statistical Mechanics: 1 demi-semester (4th yr)
    Thermal Physics: 2 semesters (2nd & 3rd yrs)
    Vector Calculus: 1 semester (2nd yr)

    A total of 32 courses.
    Because I started uni mid-year, I did only 1 semester of 1st year stuff, and moved to 2nd year in my second semester. So, this enabled me to do more stuff in 3rd year. Before starting uni, I had no intention of majoring in maths at all, but things changed quite quickly in my mind. Funny thing is, with one more applied maths course, I would have, according to Melbourne Uni, triple-majored (they count pure maths and applied maths as different majors). I don’t think I would have been able to do so many things, in phys and maths only, in any other university that I know of (except maybe Cambridge Uni). Melbourne Uni is also going through course revamp lately, but I don’t have the details.
    I’ve always wondered how the courses of undergrads from institutions like the Ecole Normale Superieure (Ulm, Paris), Moscow University, Swiss ETH, would be.
    Studying a foreign language at uni is a complete waste of time! One can do so in primary and to some extent in secondary school, but not at uni! I simply don’t think this makes sense, since it took me more than 10 yrs to master French.

  • Aaron Denney

    “Life Skills”? WTF? That’s clearly high-school or earlier. If they haven’t acquired them by college, there’s no helping them.

    I was a Caltech undergrad, and the biggest problem I found was not enough math, early enough. I had even tested out of some of it, but the opportunities for more advanced classes useful for physics just weren’t there, or weren’t made known to the undergrads.

    They do use trimesters there, and 5 courses each term was pretty standard, at most classes were 9 units. The units there are supposed to correspond to hours, and they mostly did, but there were always exceptions.

    As far as the humanities balance there goes, you are required to take at least 4 terms of humanities, 4 terms of social sciences, and 4 more between either. Some more direction might have been nice, but the flexibility was handy as well.

    One term of quantum sophomore year was I think enough for that level, though moving on to Cohen-Tannoudji as a junior was a bit much. The sophomore stat-mech class was not very useful though. If only they had presented it frm the bayesian perspective…

  • Guillermo Alcántara

    What?? 32 courses?? Of how many hours per week? I mean, college in Mexico is 64 (on average)… I mean, courses with 3-4 hours (plus homeworks, student events, competitions with other schools). Got like 40 common courses, meaning no matter if you are B.A. or B.S. Curiously enough I did get 7 slots to “choose” whatever I wanted.

    Common courses include, 7 English levels, 3 of writing, oral communication, Mexican and world history, economy, something about worldwide values, cultural differences, how to make a startup, logic, obviously calculus, statistics, and some more.

    Music, arts, sports and the like aren’t enforced. However about 50% do it just because we like them. Sorry if it seems I’m bragging, it’s just that I didn’t knew you had so few classes.

    I’m bachellor in computer science, if you wondered.

  • AndyS

    If we are going continue to push everyone through some educational potato ricer then lets require a “how to interact with other human beings” class.

    Prerequisite: ability to breathe (mechanical help allowed).

    Skills that will be mastered (any or all of which you can test out of):

    1. personal hygene and knowledge of human sexuality
    2. ability to carry on a converstation about the weather and other mundane topics with a stranger
    3. advanced first-aide and CPR
    4. ability to write a coherent one page letter
    5. ability to listen and ask open-ended questions
    6. ability to accurately paraphrase what a person tells you
    7. ability to talk about what you know without being a pompous ass
    8. ability to mediate conflicts between two other people
    9. ability to resolve conflicts between you and another
    10. ability to do planning as part of a group
    11. ability to do things for other people without being asked or expecting a reward
    12. ability to allow people to do things for you
    13. ability to give and receive hugs regardless of the other person’s gender
    14. ability to go a week without saying some negative about another human being or make a cutting remark — okay, that’s unrealistic, make it 24 hours
    15. ability to plan, shop, and cook a good vegetarian meal for four people (no frozen or prepared foods allowed)
    16. ability to make a fire and spend one night sleeping under the stars including being able to take a dump in the woods and take care of it responsibly

    If you can master that program, you may just be qualified to take your place as a functioning adult in society. Oh, hell, let’s make this an entry requirement for higher education or, even better, a high school graduation requirement.

    I know few people who are competent at all the skills on this list and even less who are comfortable with them. Yet aren’t they, or something akin to them, some of the most vital skills we need in society?

  • joseph

    So, you mean to say, that even when physicists get OUT of undergrad, they still compare themselves to each other on who was “smartest” and “got the best education”?

    Oh dear God.

  • Dave Weeden

    Not to be rude or anything here, but what did you guys learn between the ages of 5 and 18? Most of that core stuff I did in school (that’s *high* school over the pond.)

    I’m with Fred Ross. The ‘well-rounded human being’ – if she exists – is an emergent property of several years of being curious about things.

  • Alex Abate

    Hi Sean, remember me from Trieste? Just wondering if you’d make general relativity a requirement! Totally agree about the lab, although going through the ordeal the did let me know I didn’t want a lab based career. I’ve no idea how university in the US works, but unless the course marks are heavily weighted to your major, any course I took involving the writing of essays would be a ‘write’ off.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    English, mathematics and history should be admissions requirements, not college classes. That they are required in universities in the US is an admission of failure of secondary education.
    I agree that some liberal education is appropriate; something like 2 semesters of philosophy, and a little bit of social science and natural science (with lab), but other than that university should focus on majors + electives.
    Most of the Gen Ed is a waste of time and, as other commenters note, mostly just annoys people.

  • Asher

    I did my undergraduate at UChicago, so my perspective is obviously colored by the fact that I chose to go to a place with broad-based requirements (the Core).

    First, to all of you who say that history and english and calculus should be taught in high schools, well yes. And in good high schools, they are. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught in college as well. There’s always deeper to go and more to learn. And particularly in the age of NCLB (in the US), curriculums can become so set by the standardized tests that things like South Asian Civilization, Poetry, and Economics get short shift. (I was fortunate enough to have all three in my high school)

    Second, Sean, I noticed your curriculum doesn’t really have a place for so-called interdisciplinary humanities. One of my most valuable non-physics classes at the U(C) was a course called Media Aesthetics, for my humanities requirement. It was part literature class (Shakespeare, Wilde, Blake, Beckett) part fine arts class (painting, photography, music, and film) and part philosophy class (Plato, Aristotle, Benjamin, Nietzche, duBois). It was wholly different from the more rigid class categories I had experienced before and woke me up to a totally different way of thinking about these things.

    Other than that, between the Core and my electives, I think I covered basically all of what Sean suggests in his outline, with the exception of American History and Economics, and I agree that they form a strong basis for an excellent education. I don’t feel as though my physics education lacked for all of the “fuzzy” subjects I took—in fact I feel it strenghtened it. Perhaps I haven’t taken as much math as some of my fellow grad students, but I also don’t find it difficult to pick up the essential results that I need for applying to my work without having to drudge (for me) through all the proofs.

  • Sean

    Alex, I wouldn’t make GR an undergrad requirement, although I would make it very easy to take for anyone majoring in physics.

    And yes, many of the above courses could/should be taught in high school rather than college. But they are not, so…

  • Elliot

    The most useful learning experience I had as an undergraduate was an interdisciplinary independent study project where I analyzed the poetry of Blake and Yeats and lyrics of Jimi Hendrix against a Jungian psycholgical backdrop, incorporating mythological and alchemical symbols as a common language.

    But hey it was the 1970s.



  • Allyson

    I am way in the minority here, I realize, but maybe can offer a different perspective? I went to a lousy high school. I went to wonderful elementary and middle schools, however, and if not for them, I’d never have made it in college.

    I had to spend two years in community college to catch up. The community college system is amazing, and makes it possible for people to catch up from crap high school so they can transfer into four year systems. Fortunately, since I was in the Boston area, my professors also taught at Harvard, BU, BC…so I was getting the same sort of education people paid 8 times as much to get.

    So when I transferred into a four year, I was able to compete.

  • Lola Walser

    Another non-American here. I firmly believe in well-rounded education–and that one ought to have it by the time one graduates high school. The point of higher education ought to be specialization, mastering specific set(s) of skills. As far as the problems of American education go, I agree with people who suggested concentrating on the pre-university stage. I received my graduate education in the States and can testify to the absurd time-wasting imposed by coursework aiming to educate people with B.Sc. degrees who somehow didn’t take enough science during their undergrad studies and/or high school.

    And just a passing note on the idea of avoiding reading in translation. As wonderful as English literature is, limiting oneself to it would create the antithesis of a well-rounded person: an ignorant, self-complacent, narrow-minded provincial.

  • Blake Stacey

    Har. . . vard? Where’s that?

    Yes, I was course 8 at MIT. The worst two things about it were (a) the sophomore-year physics classes and (b) the humanities requirement. I’m not an insular science geek; in fact, I am enough of a wild-haired, cackling Mad Humanist that I almost got out with a literature minor. (The only thing which stopped me was a Brazil-esque bureaucratic oddity and my disinclination to fight the whole thing through during my very last term.) The problem with the “HASS” (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) requirement is that it is too complicated for a human brain to understand, and the detailed boundaries the student must follow frustrate almost all attempts to find classes of actual interest. The joy of learning dies under a hail of acronyms, amid the clash of conflicting schedules.

    As for the sophomore classes within course 8 itself. . . . We had an entire semester of special relativity. Before my time, I hear, it was a substantial course, whose meat included Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. Supposedly, the people in charge were afraid that the physics department was losing students, so they dumbed down the second-year classes, excising “tough” material and inflating the rest with copious amounts of hot air.

    It is difficult to argue that a special relativity class should spend four weeks just getting to the Lorentz transformation. The first term of quantum mechanics, 8.04, is an even more egregious waste of time, according to every physics undergrad I’ve spoken with this past five years. (Only one professor out of the half-dozen I’ve pinged actually defended that choice of curriculum, and even then the response begged the question of whether 8.04 actually achieves the stated aim of “building intuition”, etc. Student comments suggest that it doesn’t.)


    Junior and senior years were excellent.

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with the people here who say that it is a waste of time to learn a foreign language at university. Foreign languages should be taught to small children, they pick it up much faster than adults.

    I’ve read that when we first learn to speak as infants, the brain becomes more sentisitive to sounds that are used in the particular languages that we are learning and less sensitive to other sounds.

    When Chinese children grow up they lose the ability to hear the difference between the “L” and the “R” very well. If they then have to lean English as adults, they need to mimic the sound of an “L” and and the “R” but that’s dificult if you can’t hear the difference between the two sounds. :)

  • Sam Gralla

    I’m a dreamer too, but I think your curriculum is too science heavy. I don’t see why science is twice as important as english, or four times as important as fine arts.

  • Soap Bubbles

    College is a transition time in people’s life. And thus the curriculum should be designed to aid and expand one’s horizon rather than stagnate and narrow it.
    While the passion for science or math can guide you to a technical school, or the passion for humanities and social sciences to a more liberal settings, students in college should be given the opportunity and encouragment to explore beyond their comfort zone. Then and only then will they emerge in four years as comfortable rather than hazed individuals.
    Give them options but make them really go and explore in those four years.
    Many 40-something year olds go through a hard transition time when mid-through life they realize they are unhappy with their occupation and need to transition to something new.
    Well, maybe, maybe, if they had the experience of exploring and keeping their senses open for opportunities out of their comfor level throughout their career path, that trip would be easier.

    I love and hate Caltech. Mostly love but the two get mixed sometimes.

    Caltech is the type of place where if you don’t work one day you are screwed for the term. Not only that but if you miss an assignment you are doomed for the term to be behind. It’s a machine that runs you down for ten weeks straight. It gives you little room to breathe, unless you are brilliant and know everything already. But believe me, if you are at tech, you just don’t know everything, so you work hard, no matter how smart and arrogant you might be. Even if you hold a nobel prize you’ll work your rear end off. The message is that, there is little room for ‘exploration’. But there are ways, and the good administration figured out that they need to find a way to give students options to cool off. And thus there are colloborations with liberal arts programs in the area where you can complete a class for which Caltech would pay, you won’t necessarily see it on your transcript, but you’ll feel happy for having done some drawing, or acting on the side. Sports are a great way to chill, and Caltech has a superb program, allowing any newcomer to do anything, no matter how much they suck.

    But still it would be nice to have a humanities or social science clas which does not involve numbers.

    And it would be nice to read not-creepy old classics such as Robinsoe Cruso, but something fresh and new. Don’t tell me that there is no modern english literature that deserves some attention. But I confess, the classics suck. They were great for the other tmes, now they are just boring and repell me. The one reason I despise those classes. Plus if you design a decent english class, dont have a book to read a week, 500 pages worth a week. Thats way overboard. Not only we dont read it but rather find the summary online or consult friends, but you dont remember that you ever read that book. The departments need to sit down and think about time management. If i have 6 sets to turn in this week with 500 pages to read, forget it, since science is on my mind I will put my liberal education aside. Unfortunately this is what has been going at Caltech for as long as I know.

    The points are good that Sean raises but when you implement them, make the people with the brush stroke, think a bit of time management or maybe take a course in it. Because profs seam to think that what students do is care about their subject exclusively. Not a chance my friend

  • Cats on Campus

    I guess the idea is to set objectives: what should kids take away from exposure to a certain program.

    The next step is to decide what kind of exposure is necessary- should the kids read all 1800 novels or just two to get the ideas of the times and techniques or whatever your objectives were. What is too little and what is too much.

    Once inner-department guidelines are set.Comes the battle field.

    Inter-department battles. Make classes manageable and reasonable.

    Then if undergraduates want to die they will have the opportunity to choose the craziest schedules and classes. If they want to live, they can find a way too.

    To keep the integrity of the program, make the easiest-way-out option challenging enough not to be such an easy way out.

  • Jack

    Clearly everyone should have an exposure to sociology, postmodernist lit crit, and women’s studies, so that the fact that these things are utter horseshit should be a matter of direct experience. Making them compulsory will embed the lesson firmly, just as places like Villanova turn out the most formidable atheists.

  • Adam Ciapponi

    If you can somehow make an engineering schedule (without 22 credit hour semesters) with all those extra courses I’d like to see how. As it stands we dont have English courses for writing, itd be too much work so there are a few more engineering writing oriented courses for 1 credit instead.

    ” Some degree of proficiency in a foreign language, as measured by some standardized test.
    In Canada for university you take a foreign language course (french normally) in high school up to Grade 11.

    Proficiency though takes a while and it could take many courses before someone is fluent especially if they didn’t get any exposure when they were young. But hey Feynmann could fake all sorts of languages why don’t we get taught that instead 😛

  • Charon

    Damn the University of Chicago’s requirements… I took calculus (single and multivariable) in high school, but for various reasons the U of C made me take calculus all over again. And urged me into the honors class. Thus started my taking 17 math classes, none of which had any relevance at all to my physics major (because hey, this is the U of C, we can’t teach applied math).

    So I ended up with an honors math degree, all because they tricked me with requirements. I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t tested out of the language requirement.

    As far as philosophy goes, I would only condone that if the historical background (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc.) were kept to a minimum. If I was interested in rubbish written hundreds of years ago I’d take a history class. We don’t teach the Ptolemaic model in first year physics…

  • Justin Hirsh

    Long time reader, first time poster here. This thread is sort of turning into “What would I change about education” poll, so I thought I would throw in my two cents. I can’t speak so much for my undergraduate career (as it is still ongoing), but I would say that if I could change something about my education it would not be the undergraduate part but the second half of the high school portion. The system of pre-requisites and class registration structure in the Chesapeake School District was so bureaucratic and solidified that I found myself unable to take classes I wanted to take, and thus was shunted in mediocre and stultifying classes.

    A few examples:
    I transferred out of my Honors English 9 class (in San Diego) and switched to a regular English class because of an awful teacher. I moved to Chesapeake, Virginia in the summer between my 10th and 11th grade year. At this point, I was sick of the slow, meandering pace of my regular English classes, so I went to the registrar’s office in the Chesapeake school if I could switch to the Honors English class. My registrar, looking at my transcript from San Diego, told me that I couldn’t since the Honors English 11 class requires Honors English 10 as a pre-requisite.

    I then asked what was considered known material in the Honors English 11 class in the hope of maybe taking a writing test and a summer reading list. The registrar said that Honors English 11 was literally just the regular English 12 class. I asked if I could take the regular English 11 class or the Honors English 10 class over the summer, but summer school was only an available option to remedial students, not to one who had my B+/A- average. I slumped back in my seat, clearly outclassed in more ways than one.

    Not only this, but the graduation requirements from San Diego did not fulfill the requirements of Chesapeake school district, mainly because of the difference in class length and because Virginia required standarized test scores in several basic courses. This meant that not only was I stuck in a regular English course that was merely the Honors English course minus one year, but I couldn’t even take the AP classes or the electives that I wanted because I had to retake the remedial science and history courses that I had already passed in San Diego! I was starting to think that the fact that the standarized test were officially called SOLs was not merely a coincidence.

    The whole experience left me extremely bitter about the latter half of my high school education. It was an experience in sharp contrast to the relative ease with which you could achieve pre-requisites and graduation requirements in San Diego. In San Diego you could take regular courses in summer school without being a remedial student. This was a measure developed to relieve overcrowding and waiting lists in the regular courses. In Virginia–which, by the way, is 47th in terms of per student education spending–there weren’t enough summer school teachers to warrant summer school being anything more than a remedial last resort.

    Woo, tangent. Anyway, the thing I would change about education if I could? Flexibility of course. Flexibility of the faculty, flexibility of requirements cross-state, flexibility when a student wants to move upward, etc. Unfortunately, what does flexibility require? Money.

  • Count Iblis

    Charon, but couldn’t you just do the exams without following classes? That’s what I did in similar cases.

  • spyder

    I was hoping that someone would have brought this up already along the way, but it seems that it is a task left for me to undertake. Any reform of university curricula must look at some profound philosophical questions before simply mandating this or that set of required courses. Foremost among these questions is the role of the university in the society/nation as a whole. Most universities, including private ones, receive substantial funding from public sources (grants, research, tuition loans, etc. et al), and thus have some responsibility to the civil commons for their use of those funds.

    Universities are elitist in nature, if for no other reason than there are only so many enrollment slots alloted each year to incoming freshman and graduate students, but also through the selection criteria (and processes) established to make the admission choices. Currently only 19% of high school graduating seniors will matriculate through a successful, four-year, university/college bachelor’s degree program (that percent peaked at 27% in the early 70’s). Yet, we focus our k-12 public education programs to provide 100% of those students with the requisite skills and achievement test scores to attend universities and colleges. What is happening to that missing 80%? What is happening in the 6-12 curricula that pre-selects for that 19%? What?? What?? What?? Yes there are many of these sorts of questions.

    Perhaps some of the responses can be addressed through questions and examinations of our teacher (and professor) preparation programs. I noticed that no one above mentioned that, yet all were educated in programs, k-12 and universities, by teachers and professors who had necessarily matriculated through undergraduate and graduate curricula. When we, as a nation, predetermine that all students in the country will be taught by those who are successful in: gaining entrance to a four-year university/college; maintaing their scholastic standing and graduating; being admitted into teacher preparation and/or other graduate studies; maintaining the quality of their work and being awarded certifications, credentials, graduate degrees; finally entering the teaching profession whether public k-12, community college, or university/college—-well we certainly have demanded that we provide the very best university curricula we can create. Callous disregard for Plato is not the hallmark of an enlightened educator.

  • Peter Erwin

    Lola Walser said:
    Another non-American here. I firmly believe in well-rounded education—and that one ought to have it by the time one graduates high school. The point of higher education ought to be specialization, mastering specific set(s) of skills. As far as the problems of American education go, I agree with people who suggested concentrating on the pre-university stage. I received my graduate education in the States and can testify to the absurd time-wasting imposed by coursework aiming to educate people with B.Sc. degrees who somehow didn’t take enough science during their undergrad studies and/or high school.

    Leaving aside the fact that there are problems with high school (and earlier) education, there’s also a difference in philosophy: at what age should people be choosing what to specialize in? 20? 18? 14? The European system is generally geared towards the earlier ages, so that in the later years of high school (or the equivalent) you’re already starting to specialize, and you’re expected to know exactly what subject you’re going to do at university.

    The American system allows for the possibilty that not all 18-year-olds will know what they want to specialize in, and so it’s relatively easy to change majors, sometimes even in your third year (depending on the university). I’ve known enough people who did things like that to think it’s a valuable approach. And I’ve known a few British people, for example, who had a rough time in university because they realized they really didn’t like what they’d picked as their major, but found it very difficult to switch to something else.

    I’m biased, of course — I entered university not knowing whether I wanted to do biology or astronomy, and was able to make a more informed choice after having the opportunity to take courses in each. So the system worked well for me. And it ended up letting me major in medieval history at the same time, which was a bonus.

    (I assume you’re not suggesting that the entire US undergraduate educational system should be re-arranged just to avoid inconveniencing those foreign grad students who feel bored by their coursework? 😉

    A separate issue is this: when you’re at university, you have potential access to significantly better, deeper, and more sophisticated study about all those things you’re not majoring in. So if a well-rounded education is a good thing, why not take advantage of it?

    And just a passing note on the idea of avoiding reading in translation. As wonderful as English literature is, limiting oneself to it would create the antithesis of a well-rounded person: an ignorant, self-complacent, narrow-minded provincial.

    I certainly agree with you here. I’m not sure why Sean seems to have an animus against reading literature in translation; for what it’s worth, “English” classes in American elementary and high schools almost always include some literature in translation. Off the top of my head, I can remember reading Beowulf, The Odyssey, Sophocles, and Tolstoy, all in high school. Oh, and parts of the Bible. (Yes, that’s literature in translation, too.)

  • serial catowner

    Some of the best small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are just that- small liberal arts colleges. Confusing a school like Reed or St. Johns with a major landgrant university will lead to…confusion.

    Frankly, if you want the strength of a specialized major from a large school, and any degree of comprehension of the humanities, you need to spend more than four years in post-secondary education. The departments fill the last three years of the undergrad with required courses, and their first year is spent taking prerequisites.

    In all probability, most of our post-secondary educational system is composed of ‘too big to fail’ entities who haven’t considered for years, if ever, the broader role they play in educating the nation. All things considered, maybe best to leave ‘well enough’ alone.

  • christian h.

    And another foreigner… I also had basically math courses only at university in Germany (some physics for a very minor minor). And since we all think however we did it is best, I agree with Lola and the guy from Melbourne.

    One reason is my impression as instructor that the students can’t concentrate on anything and so don’t learn any of the stuff they do very well. The other is that university students are grown-ups, and should be treated as such. In the US, even graduate students are treated like children the first year or so. Why not trust students? Most people have wide interests, no need to force it on them.

    If you insist on GenEd requirements, then certainly Calculus should not be part of it. Never understood why a historian should know it. If any math, give a numeracy course so people can make informed judgements about numerical stuff (eg, statistics) they are likely to come across.

  • Suz

    christian h said:
    “In the US, even graduate students are treated like children the first year or so.”

    Oh how true, even if you are in your nth year as a grad student, where n is a large number. In my program, and I suspect many others, a lot of students enter after having worked a few years. So we’re older when we enter, and we reach our upper twenties and lower thirties while still in grad school. And they (our professors, department administrators) *still* treat us like children, doing everything from herding us into a lecture room just to provide warm bodies for a boring lecture to lecturing us about how to spend our time. By the way, “they” is the MIT biology department.

  • JMG3Y

    So, given the reality of the current higher ed system, how should a bright high school senior (scores and grades hi enough to get into virtually any school) with a breadth of interests (physics is usually number 1 but depending on the day biophysics, neuroscience, MD/PhD to even pin stripes and making a lot of money on some) pick a school/program?

    How much does the undergrad school matter, assuming strong undergrad performance, in grad physics opportunities? Elite private, say Stanford , vs. Ivy, say Harvard vs. strong state, say Stanford vs. U Michigan or U Washington vs. the strong technical, say Caltech, vs. podunk U.

    At what point does the strength of the previous program matter in determining future opportunities for the steps from undergrad to grad MS PhD to post-doc to faculty position? Or does individual performance always trump the program?

  • JMG3Y

    To the query above, I should have added the selection of advisor/mentor to the list of the relative importance of what matters for the next step.

    I encountered a Phd from a top tier school who couldn’t have bought a post-doc if he had paid for the whole thing. He and his advisor had stacked the deck in selecting his Phd committee so badly that he got off with one that wasn’t worth much more than the paper it was printed on and the department had let them get away with it.

  • Adrian Burd

    My oh my, Sean has stirred up a storm. It appears to me that the European
    (I was educated in the English system) and the American systems have very
    different assumptions underlying them, and serve different purposes. At least
    in my day (cue Monty Python sketch), secondary education gave one sufficient
    depth in a wide range of subjects to make an educated choice about what to study at university. But, such a choice did not entrain you into a specific
    vocational path. It would be interesting to see statistics related to choices of
    major and profession 5, 10 and 20 years after graduation, in Europe and the US.

    To my mind, secondary education in the US is, in general, an unmitigated
    disaster. I would also have to agree with the individual who argued that
    general education requirements at universities only serve to provide a
    veneer of knowledge and understanding. I work in an interdisciplinary
    field (oceanography) in the US. Whilst generalizing a tad, most students entering
    graduate school to study physical oceanography wouldn’t know a bacterium
    from a virus, and most entering for a PhD in biological oceanography
    couldn’t solve (dy/dt = -ky) if their lives depended on it. I admit that my
    sample size is small and selective, but it would lend one to suspect the
    success of general education requirements, at least in the sciences.

    As for what I would impose if everyone was unfortunate enough to have me
    in charge; I don’t know. One failure of education systems in general is that
    they are full of well meaning people with grand plans, but few of these plans
    are ever followed to completion and fewer still are analyzed to discover objectively what works and what does not – in large part because for a plan
    to be successfully examined it has to be followed for many years, and others
    will change the plan before there are sufficient data to really get ones teeth into.

    So the upshot is we have to muddle through as best we can. Given that,
    I do agree with Sean and others, that one full semester of special
    relativity is excessive. Now, if one were talking about a semester of
    fluid mechanics, that would be a different thing altogether – I know
    several folks working in classical general relativity who would argue that
    a throrough study of fluid mechanics is very helpful in that field as well.


  • Greg A.

    Your ideal course schedule sounds similar to Loyola University Chicago’s core (at least when I was there; they’ve recently changed it), which was, if memory serves:

    3 Philosophy Courses
    3 Theology Courses
    3 Literature Courses
    2 English Comp. courses
    2 History Courses
    2 Social Science Courses
    1 Fine Arts
    3 Science Courses, with at least one physical science course and one life science course
    1 (or two, I placed into Multi Variable Calc, so I have no idea) math/stat courses
    2 Foriegn Language courses, or proficiency which could come from Highschool.

    I think the only real changes involved requiring 5 total phil/theo instead of 6, with a mandatory course having to deal with ethics or morality (or something), and they’ve changed the math requirement to be any course having a quantitative componant. At least I think that’s what they did. I was able to double major in Math and Physics, but only got out in four years without taking summer school because I had entered with around a year of AP credit.

    Personally, I wish I would have stayed longer and picked up a comparative lit minor or an English lit major, but I’ve been informed on numerous occasions that I’m not too normal :-) . I think other people have said this in the comments, but I’ll say it anyway: I think it’s still worth having a demanding course requirment, rather than a kind of, “Do what feels right,”- type of requirement, if only to force students to think outside of their field–or possibly just to force students to think.

  • Count Iblis


    Foriegn Language courses…

    Do they teach that at university? I only found one high school where they have a “Foriegn Language Department”:

    Ames High School Foriegn Language Department :)

  • Greg A.

    OK. Make fun of my spelling. And I think, strictly speaking, the courses satisfying the Foreign language requirement were taught by the Department of Modern Languages. And I don’t think there was any requirement that the language you took had to be foreign to you: in my 9 person Russian class, I think only 2 or 3 people couldn’t already speak at least some Russian.

  • Greg A.

    I also don’t think they actually called it the ‘Foreign Language requirement,’ either. Eh, whatever.

  • Adam

    I was a high school teacher for a year (in the Newark, NJ public school system) and I was shocked when I realized what a well-rounded education high schools attempt to give to their students. With competent teachers, a motivated student can emerge from high school knowing the basics of history, literature, math, and science, which is pretty impressive. That being the case, i my experiance, American, high-school aged kids (myself, at the time, and my peers included) are generally too immature to take advantage of what they’re offered, and don’t take the classes seriously enough to learn the material in a meaningful way. So high school is wasted on high school kids, and they have to try again in college. Maybe it’s a problem with our educational system, maybe with our society, or maybe it’s just an age thing.

    Additionally, I just want to point out that one of the benefits of a required core curriculum is that the courses are actually offered. I probably would have taken more core-type classes if I could have. Professors like to teach more specialized classes, though. I think that’s a problem a lot of people have been raising recently.

  • Savyasachi

    And why can all this not be taught in a *school*, the way it is done (quite successfully) in so many “Third-world” countries?

  • Kaleberg

    One of the great thing about the US higher educational system is its sheer variety. With so many different kinds of colleges, a student can generally find the kind of education he or she desires. This sounds silly. Isn’t there one set of Analects that define higher learning? Isn’t there one range or one approach that should work for everyone?

    I went to MIT and greatly enjoyed the firehose and the freedom. I learned French in my 40s, mainly from comic books and movies, but I would have considered a foreign language requirement when I was trying to learn engineering a painful nuisance. I unwound reading history, but never took a history course. Even at MIT, without a language requirement, I had friends taking French, Russian, German and Mandarin, and I had friends who considered studying history an exercise in masochism.

    The US system is wonderfully inefficient, massively flexible, and surprisingly capable. It can educate prodigies and late bloomers, scions and pariahs. Like the enzymatic back alleys of a cell, it can compensate for horrendous SAT scores and wretched high schools and still generate an educated graduate. Of course, the quality of the product varies. That’s why graduate schools, and employers, wind up grading the college and the individual.

    Different people mature at different rates. They learn in different ways. Not all of them will succeed in the same way. They require different approaches to higher education.

  • Pingback: Laelaps()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar