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Published: May 8, 2011

College curriculum

In the United States, an amorphous and continually changing program of postsecondary studies in a virtually limitless range of subjects and topics. The scope of American college curricula depends largely on the philosophy and educational goals of individual colleges. In general, colleges offer curricula of between 1,000 and 3,000 courses, only a few of which are specifically required for graduation or a degree. Graduation requirements usually consist of a specific number of course credits, with a specific number reserved for courses in the student’s major.
Originally rigid and designed to prepare young men for the Protestant ministry, American college curricula have evolved into programs that, in general, reflect the demands of the marketplace. With many colleges operating at multimillion-dollar annual deficits and some charging students more than $45,000 a year, few institutions can afford to ignore the demands of their “clients.” The result, on some campuses, has been curricula ranging from esoterica to the most complex advanced studies of major scientific, social, economic and political issues. One report on college curricula called many “little more than secondary school material—warmed over and reoffered at much higher expense.” Like course quality, graduation and degree requirements vary widely from institution to institution.
Exactly what colleges should teach and what they should require students to study remain major controversies in higher education, as they have been since the first American college, Harvard, opened its doors in 1636. Founded as a divinity school, Harvard required all students to study logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, history, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, physics, the nature of plants, Greek grammar and literature, Hebrew grammar and Bible readings, Chaldee (Chaldean) grammar and Apocryphal readings, Syriac grammar and New Testament readings, and catechetical divinity. Fluency in Latin was a prerequisite for admission. Based on the Oxford and Cambridge models, Harvard’s “classical curriculum” had emerged from the clerical and ministerial colleges of the Middle Ages and was designed to supply the colonies with a force of Puritan ministers to oversee the spiritual and secular lives of settlers.
By the end of the 17th century, the rigid Harvard curriculum had become a source of controversy. Although half its students were indeed training for the ministry, others planned to enter law, medicine, industry and public service, and they sought a broader, more liberal education that included literature, history and philosophy. Intellectual liberals responded by expanding the curriculum to include areligious, political and philosophical works of such Age of Reason thinkers as Locke and Rousseau. Angry conservatives quit Harvard and went to New Haven to found Yale and perpetuate the orthodox ministerial curriculum. By the end of the 18th century, however, the term classical education had gained a far broader meaning, and even at Yale it embraced the study of literature, poetry, drama, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, history, art, music and modern foreign languages needed for international commerce.
Meanwhile, another force had developed in college-level curriculum development, based on the practical needs of the American wilderness and the industrial revolution. Secularists led by Benjamin Franklin envisioned colleges as institutions to prepare young men and women for the task of building a new nation. Franklin founded the secular COLLEGE OF PHILADELPHIA in the belief that practical skills were more important to the survival of the United States than religious instruction. The debate between the Franklinesque “practicalists” and Harvardian “classicists” has persisted in American higher education ever since. The practicalists gained the upper hand in public education policy after the Civil War, when the need to rebuild the nation’s agricultural and industrial plant took precedence. In 1862, Congress passed the Land Grant (Morrill) Act, which offered tens of thousands of acres of free government land to each state to sell and use the proceeds to establish and maintain colleges. The new “LANDGRANT” COLLEGES were to offer practical education in agriculture, mechanics, mining and military tactics, as well as the traditional arts and sciences. The result was the construction across the United States of the colleges that spawned the nation’s public state universities and colleges. For the next century, public university curricula leaned toward the practical, while private universities required students to pursue classical studies; many of the latter required three years of high school Latin as an entrance requirement until shortly after World War II. Moreover, the most selective private colleges of the Northeast required all candidates for bachelor’s degrees to complete a core curriculum based on classical studies (over and above the required number of courses in their major) to graduate. Usually, the core curriculum included at least two years each of college English and a modern foreign language and one year each of college mathematics and a laboratory science.
The technological and social changes that followed World War II, however, forced private universities to promulgate vast revisions in their curricula—almost all of them marketdriven. The most remunerative job opportunities required technical and scientific skills, not a knowledge of Latin, and students sought out institutions that would provide those skills. Meanwhile, the federal government and major corporations were offering huge grants to those researchers and institutions that provided the best scientific research. Colleges that failed to expand their science curricula not only risked losing such grants, they also faced the loss of their most brilliant teachers and students. With men circling and landing on the moon, Latin and Greek seemed irrelevant. By 2004, the number of bachelor’s degrees in business awarded by American colleges and universities had doubled, to more than 21% of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. In contrast, the number of degrees awarded in English language and literature fell more than 20%, accounting for a mere 4% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Interest in foreign languages and literature fell even more sharply, and accounted for only just over 1% of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2004.
Complicating the debate over classical versus practical studies, however, was a new debate over the cultural orientation of college curricula. The post–World War II era had produced social, as well as technological changes. Passage of two sweeping civil rights laws in 1957 and 1964 ended all forms of segregation in education and brought blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women to formerly all-white, all-male campuses. The new arrivals protested what they perceived as a Western bias to traditional literature, history, social science and other course offerings. They demanded a multicultural curriculum that would expose them to non-Western as well as Western history and thought. Women, in turn, demanded a less male-oriented curriculum. Facing deficits that left them financially dependent on students, most colleges acceded to most of the various demands of the marketplace. It is an unusual institution that does not now offer courses in African-American studies, for example, or women’s studies. Ironically, despite the emphasis on multiculturalism, fewer than 8% of American colleges still require any foreign language study. (See MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION.)
Unfortunately, the broadening and diversification of curricula left many colleges without a common educational focus. A 1989 report by the National Endowment for the Humanities (see NATIONAL FOUNDATION ON THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES) found that the majority of American college students were graduating without knowledge of “basic landmarks of history and thought.” Among the multitude of evidence were findings that 25% of college seniors surveyed did not know that Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere before 1500 and that the vast majority could not identify the Magna Carta. A National Adult Literacy Survey by the U.S. Department of Education found large numbers of college graduates lacking basic reading, writing and computation skills.
The result was a return by more than 80% of American colleges to a required CORE CURRICULUM consisting of a minimum number of courses in one or more broad study areas, such as philosophy, science, literature, foreign languages and history. The number and range of such core curricula varied from institution to institution, however. Only about 12% of American institutions of higher education maintained any mathematics requirements for graduation, and only 34% had any natural science requirements. Only about one-third of American colleges now require English majors to read any of the works by Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, the three writers generally regarded as preeminent English authors and, until recently, required reading for all English majors. Two-thirds of American colleges that require English literature courses now base their offerings on so-called pop culture, with course titles such as “The Gangster Film” or “Melodrama and Soap Opera.” Almost all colleges, however, continue to require students to demonstrate proficiency in writing as a prerequisite for graduation.
In 2004, a committee of HARVARD UNIVERSITY administrators, professors and students proposed a restructuring of college curricula to influence course offerings at other academically demanding American colleges. Harvard proposed, on the one hand, a sharp increase in the number of required science courses and, on the other hand, a broader-based approach to the study of major subjects. In the science sector, Harvard suggested expanding the scope of survey courses to include in-depth laboratory studies. In the arts, it proposed expanding courses to include required field study—abroad, if appropriate, but outside the confines of the student’s own college. Students majoring in Chinese history, for example, would spend at least one semester at a university in China. Before Harvard announced these curricular changes, YALE UNIVERSITY had urged similar changes in its curricular mix, suggesting that students take as many as 60% of their courses in science and technology by 2010—regardless of their major. Yale also suggested a response to cultural and economic globalization by expanding the number of foreign students at major American universities to as many as one-third of total enrollment. (See also APPENDIX D, UNDERGRADUATE MAJORS OFFERED AT AMERICAN COLLEGES.)