Need for common intellectual vocabulary key issue in upcoming curricular review

As the Committee for Educational Policy (CEP) presides over the ongoing discussion of curricular reform, we at the Record would like to offer our thoughts on the issue. Undeniably, curriculum has a formative effect on the makeup of both the student body and the intellectual atmosphere of a college. One only needs to consider the examples of St. John’s College, the University of Chicago or Columbia University, institutions where core curriculum plays a leading role in campus life – or on the other end of the spectrum, Brown University, which prides itself on being all but requirement-free – to realize how curricula fundamentally determine the nature of a college.

Williams also defines itself by its curriculum. No doubt, many students chose to come to this institution because they appreciated the academic opportunities and choices available to them because of the minimal requirements of the current curriculum. With that in mind, then, a discussion of curriculum reform must include a discussion of what we believe is intrinsically important to our college experience.

Do we as a college community value a certain common body of knowledge? Do we believe that every student should have a large amount of freedom in determining what classes he or she takes? Do we think that students should graduate with a common body of skills, including the ability to write clearly and analyze quantitatively?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

In theory, the current curriculum fosters the development of an academic community where such questions are answered affirmatively. Taking three classes from each of the three divisions sounds like a wonderful compromise between the rigors of a core curriculum and the formlessness of a system lacking all requirements. In the reality of our college experience, we find the present curriculum somewhat lacking.

We understand the merits of the liberal arts education – “learning how to think, not what to think”— and of taking classes in a wide breadth of subjects across the three divisions. However, the student body would be better served by completing not a core curriculum, but a smaller, more specific set of requirements that would both encourage different modes of thinking and the development of a common body of knowledge among the student body.

The College should require that all students, no matter their major, take a writing intensive course. During the semester, while developing their writing skills, they would be required to produce at least 20 pages of work. A course focusing on quantitative analysis should also be added as a requirement, either in mathematics or the natural or physical sciences.

An interdisciplinary survey course on Western civilization, history and philosophy should be required of first-year students. Not only would such a course create a more cohesive first-year experience, but also it would give students ideas about topics to explore in their future courses. In addition, it would teach fundamental background knowledge that is often missing when students jump into higher level courses as well as provide a common body of information that students could discuss in places like dining halls.

Because it requires a way of thinking drastically different from the social sciences or humanities, taking a laboratory science course, which would be accepted as a requirement for the major in that department, should also be a graduation requirement for every student. To encourage global awareness and a diverse body of knowledge among the student body, the peoples and cultures requirement should be increased from one credit to two, and there should also be a foreign language requirement.

These “core requirements” do not limit academic freedoms in the same way a “core curriculum” would. They would provide necessary academic direction in a liberal curriculum, without denying students the opportunities to explore a breadth of fields or to specialize in a particular area. Finally, in addition to the other requirements and to ensure a varied curriculum, in each of the first two years at the College, students should still be required to take at least one class from each of the three existing divisions.