College ratings ignites debate over core requirements

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 8:51 PM

BALTIMORE - Johns Hopkins University is America's premier research institution. Yet a student could complete a bachelor's degree here without ever taking a course in science. Or math. Or history. Or English.

Students at Johns Hopkins - and many other prestigious colleges - choose classes the way a diner patron assembles a meal, selecting items from a vast menu. Broad distribution requirements ensure that students explore the academic universe outside their majors. But no one is required to study any particular field, let alone take a specific course. Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid - all are on the menu; none is required.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based advocacy group, handed out F grades in August to Hopkins and many of its peers, inviting debate on a basic question: What, if anything, should America's college students be required to learn?

The group faulted the schools, including Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst and the University of California at Berkeley, for failing to require students to take courses in more than one of seven core academic subjects: math, science, history, economics, foreign language, literature and composition.

"At Stanford, you can fulfill the American cultures requirement by taking a class on a Japanese drum," said Anne Neal, president of the trustees group.

"We're certainly not saying that Harvard or Hopkins or Yale are not good schools, or that their graduates are not smart kids," said Neal, who attended Harvard and Harvard Law. "What we're saying is that those schools don't do a good job at providing their students with a coherent core."

Some higher education leaders say Neal misses the mark. The point of a college education is to teach students to think, solve problems and change the world, they say, not to download a compendium of facts.

Brown University's New Curriculum, liberated from the strictures of general education in the 1960s, was "designed to produce independent, creative thinkers who will make a difference in the world," said Katherine Bergeron, dean of the college at Brown.

Brown is an outlier. Most colleges do expect their students to learn certain material, a priority reflected in nearly universal requirements that students take courses in several broad academic categories.

Yet many deans acknowledge that the system is flawed. Curriculum decisions are intensely political. Any attempt to list "fundamental" courses or texts will elicit howls of outrage from departments that are passed over.

"No one wants to be left out," said Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor and former dean of its college.

The old school way

It wasn't always this way. College faculties taught from the same, fairly static list of Western scholars until the late 1800s, when the American research university took shape and students began to choose their own majors.

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