Middleburg College in Vermont and American University and Trinity women's college here are going to reimpose academic course requirements for graduation, in moves that reflect a growing concern in colleges across the country that the educational reforms of thd past decade were excessive.
Faculty discussions are under way at George Washington University, Amherst and Harvard about course requirements as educators question the results of the campus revolution of the late sixties with its demands for academic "relevance" and absolute freedom for students to choose what they wanted to study.
"The reforms of the late 1960s brought both good and ill," says Richard Berendzen, provost at American University.
"Out went the insensitivity of universities to poor teaching. Out went some really oppressive distribution requirements."
"But with all that, Berendzen continued, "Out went the rigor that some professors had demanded of their students. Out went much of the fabric of educated civilization. There has been a debasement of the coin and what we are trying to do at American University is turn that around. one of the cornerstones of a liberal education is that you are there to teach the whole person."
In response to student pressure, the Trinity faculty voted to drop basic course requirements in 1970. What happened in the intervening years, said Sister Mary Ann Cook, the academic dean, was that students "weren't getting the kind of breadth that we believe a liberal education is all about."
Beginning next fall, Trinity will once again require that all graduates take at least one laboratory science, a foreign language, history, English, social studies and philosophy.
Elsewhere - at Harvard, Middleburg and Amherst, to name just a few - the concept of course distribution requirements has been reimposed or is being considered.
At Amherst, where virtually all distribution requirements were dropped in the 1960s, college president John W. Ward now says he's troubled by a curriculum that says, in effect, "Here in any term are 206 courses, all excellent, of course. Take any four."
For almost the past year, an Amherst faculty committee has been studying the matter of reimposing some sort of distribution requirement. "There has been a sense of professional unease that the faculty was not able to articulate better what a student should achieve over four years in a liberal education," Ward said.
At Harvard, a similar review has been under way for two years wtih the aim of identifying what is "fundamental" to an undergraduate education.
Beginning next fall, students at Vermont's Middlebury College will be required to take at least one specially designed "foundation" course from each of three academic divisions in their first two years.
Like many schools, Middleburg dropped virtually all its distribution requirements for graduation in the spring of 1970.
Six years later, many students and faculty members found the result of that decision to have had a "disturbingly random effect in (students') course selection as they cast their eyes back over four years at Middlebury . . ." wrote assistant English professor John C. Elder in an article in the college's alumni magazine.
"Many students found their isolated courses in various subject matters fading to a few such vague concepts as that most stars are balls of flaming gas and all Victorian poets were sexual maniacs," wrote Elder. Here in Washington, Trinity - although not a widely known college - offers almost a classic illustration of how some of the reforms of the late 1960s and early '70s occurred and how some went away.
As Sister Cook, recalls it, student leaders drew up a manifesto and then the entire student body confronted the faculty with their "demands."
The demanded, among other things, that courses become more relevant, that requirements be eased and that students be given more freedom to take what they wanted.
Essentially, the college's reponse was to throw out all degree requirements except that a student had to have a major and a minimum of 128 credit hours to graduate.
There were four broad areas of instruction and students were normally expected to take at least a few courses in each area, but exceptions wrere liberally granted. Additionally, said Sister Cook, the areas were so broad that it was possible to satisfy the expectation in the language, literature and fine arts area by taking three courses in studio art and never taking a foreign language or English literature.
When the faculty looked at what had happened to the two classes that has spent their four years at Trinity under the new system - the classes of 1975 and 1976 - they were disturbed at what they saw.
"There was a high degree of specialization and not as broad a selection as we had hoped. Lab sciences were being avoided and students were not taking as much theology and philosophy as we believe they need for a liberal arts education."
After months of discussion with faculty and students, it was decided once again to impose requirements.
"When you have a curriculum that is a loose as this, there is no common scholars," Sister Cook said. "You've got to have things like history. So may of our students totally lack a chronological frame of reference for everything else they study."
In general the reforms of the late 1960s and early '70s wre embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm of different campuses. Trinity, which overhauled its curriculum extensively in 1970, is now taking a major step in another direction. Other schools where the reforms were not as sweeping are not moving as rapidly, or at all, in the direction of more requirements.
Beginning in the fall of 1978, American University will increase from four to five the normal course load per semester. Students will be required to meet distribution requirements in three broad areas of natural and mathematical sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities.
As a Trinity, American University faculty noticed that without distribution requirements, the natural sciences and the courses with a reputation for being difficult were being avoided.
"We'll try to put our best teachers in our required courses," said Berendzen. "It's the students themselves who are asking for academic vigor."