Rather than wrangle over a hypothetical new curriculum, the College of Arts and Sciences has opted for an experimental approach—with help from some pioneering freshmen.

By Susan Lonkevich | Photography by Addison Geary
Sidebar | “An Opportunity to Get the Best”


Brennan Quinn

Brennan Quinn C’04 co-edited her high school newspaper and coordinated eight student chapters of Amnesty International in her home state of Washington. When she came to Penn from Seattle four months ago, the freshman considered herself pre-law; her loyalties lay with the humanities. Now, however, she’s thinking of majoring in the biological basis of behavior. “I didn’t ever expect to be converted to the sciences,” she says.
    The catalyst for this change was a course called “Perspectives on Cognitive Neuroscience: Mind, Brain and Society,” a savory stew of philosophy, law and psychology taught by a trio of professors last fall. The interdisciplinary class fulfills one of the general requirements for 200 College freshmen who, like Quinn, have volunteered to try out an experimental curriculum over the next four years.
    The class “attempts to answer questions that anyone with an iota of curiosity wants to know,” Quinn explains. “The whys behind our existence and how we process information, and how our minds and bodies [interact].” As excited as she is by these paths of inquiry, Quinn looks forward to sampling other disciplines her second semester as she searches for a major.
    Hers is precisely the kind of open-minded academic journey that the innovators behind Penn’s pilot curriculum hope to stimulate. “Too few students venture outside the well-beaten path of courses, and a handful of majors count for the lion’s share of them all,” observes Dr. Kent Peterman, director of academic affairs in the College and executive director of the pilot curriculm. “We’d like to get them to open up to other visions of what they might do.”
    After a dozen years with the same curriculum, faculty gave the go-ahead in 1999 to run a pilot program with a dramatically different approach—one that puts more responsibility in students’ hands for choosing electives, while exposing them during their first two years at the University to a variety of academic disciplines through a small number of required courses. It will be evaluated over the next four to five years, using a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
    “I think what’s unique about our initiative is that it’s an experimental process,” Peterman says. “Rather than try to come to some agreement about what [the best curriculum for Penn is] going to be, we’ve decided to take our time. We’re not trying to do some emergency repair.”
    So far the pilot curriculum hasn’t won the favor of all professors at Penn—indeed, many members of the science faculty argue that it waters down the sciences. And as promising as Dr. Richard Beeman, the dean of the College, finds the plan to be, he says he would be surprised if it’s adopted in toto.
    But Beeman, who came up with the general idea of a set of curricular experiments in 1998, believes the process of experimentation is as valuable as the product—whatever that may turn out to be. “I’ve always considered the pilot curriculum as a metaphor for a faculty willing and eager to rethink every aspect of what we do in undergraduate education.”
    For instance, one of his stated goals for the College—though he fears it may sound “like Mom and apple pie”—is to “improve the quality of teaching and learning.” Though the institution’s respect for teaching has increased in the 15 years he has been an administrator at Penn, Beeman says, it is “still regarded more lightly than scholarly research and publication. And one of the reasons for that is we don’t have the same reliable means for evaluating good teaching that we do scholarship. The whole process of evaluating outcomes in the pilot curriculum will hopefully help us understand better how we do that.”


In conference: College director of academic affairs Kent Peterman, Dean Richard Beeman, and Chief Justice John Marshmallow (floor).

A Simple Plan
    Under the existing education plan, students must fulfill a general requirement that consists of 10 courses from a wide selection in seven sectors of knowledge: Society; History and Tradition; Arts and Letters; Formal Reasoning and Analysis; the Living World; the Physical World; and Science Studies.
    The pilot curriculum reduces the general requirement to four courses in four sectors of knowledge that cross over disciplinary boundaries: Structure and Value in Human Societies; Science, Culture and Society; Earth, Space and Life; and Imagination, Representation and Reality. Students take one in each of their first four semesters at Penn. In addition, they must complete a significant research or creative project in the departments of their majors. During their sophomore year, they must submit written plans to their advisors outlining a proposed course of study. According to Dr. Frank Warner, emeritus professor of mathematics at Penn and former chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, which devised the curriculum, one of the main goals “was to introduce students early in their academic career to the vast intellectual landscape of the University, to the many fields which they have not previously studied, so they can make intelligent use of the remaining two years they have here. We thought we should do it with four [general-requirement] courses that are broadly interdisciplinary, and for the most part, team taught.”
    Both plans direct students to fulfill the individual requirements of their majors, demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language after completing an intermediate level of study, and take a writing-intensive course as well as a quantitative-skills course.

Kathleen Huang

“I was excited about the fact that I had more freedom to choose my courses and could play a bigger role in shaping my college academic experience,” says Kathleen Huang C’04, a freshman from New York who attended a specialized high school in Brooklyn where she played volleyball and majored in environmental science. She was lured to Penn by its promise of generous financial aid. The smaller number of general requirements in the pilot curriculum left room on her schedule last semester to sample a women’s studies seminar, “which I absolutely love.” At the moment she wants to major in communication and urban studies, and possibly minor in women’s studies. She plans to take as many advanced-level seminars as possible over the next two years, because she believes that’s the best way to decide if she likes a subject. “My friends all say how jealous they are of me because they wish they were in the pilot program.”
    The academic plan Huang creates will likely look different from any other pilot participant’s. One student might choose to sample a large number of humanities courses outside a demanding science major; another might use the extra electives to go beyond the proficiency level in a foreign language. Students could also assemble thematic clusters of classes in a subject other than their majors which interests them.
    “So much about the pilot curriculum,” says Beeman, “really has to do with students thinking imaginatively about what they want to do with their education. At a place as complicated as Penn, there are no one or five or 20 paths that are the correct paths. There are hundreds of correct paths.”
    One might say the same of college curriculums, which vary from campus to campus. In evaluating the pilot, Beeman emphasizes the need to decide what’s right for Penn, not to look for trends at other universities. In fact, he notes, “Many of the schools like Penn moved, some years after we did, to fashioning general-education requirements that are strikingly similar to the one we presently have in place. And thus, those requirements haven’t gotten ‘old’ enough to provoke any major evaluations.” Just last school year, Duke University overhauled its curriculum and ended up with one that is “much more extensive and complicated even than Penn’s present general requirement. In some senses,” Beeman says, “the pilot curriculum here is the polar opposite of [that] curriculum.”
    One theme that Beeman does observe among peer universities is a greater emphasis on “critical skills”—writing, quantitative reasoning, foreign languages and, more recently, oral communications. “I think all of us are agreed that we need to pay more attention to nurturing critical skills, and the pilot curriculum certainly goes in that direction as well.” Outside the pilot, the University is in the process of implementing a foreign-language certificate program that encourages students to go beyond minimum proficiency in a foreign language. Another initiative, Speaking Across the University, has trained undergraduate advisors to help peers improve their oral communication skills; nine courses which give special attention to oral presentations were offered in the College last semester through this program. Beeman says the College hopes to work more self-consciously, though not exclusively, with students in the pilot program to develop these skills.


Well disciplined: Dr. Martha Farah, Dr. Richard Samuels and Dr. Stephen Morse mix psychology, philosophy and law in the classroom.

Mind Over Matter
    Dr. Stephen Morse hunches his shoulders, dips his head and trudges into the classroom to the curious amusement of five-dozen students. “Suppose,” he says, “I walked into the room kind of like this and started weeping. One of you—ask me how I feel.”
    “How do you feel?” ventures a student.
    Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law—who is also a professor of psychology and law—responds in monotone, “I feel really blue. I feel like life’s not worth living. Anyone got the diagnosis?”
    “Depression.”
    “Now suppose you ask me some further questions,” Morse tells them, then goes through a series of symptoms, including sleep- and weight-loss.
    “You all got the diagnosis right without knowing a thing about my brain, about my nervous system, about my endocrine system, about anything else in the world except what—what were the data you used to make the diagnosis?”
    “Your behavior.”
    Thus begins another session of the cognitive neuroscience class which Morse co-teaches with Dr. Martha Farah, professor of psychology, and Dr. Richard Samuels, research associate in philosophy. Though all three professors come to each class, the course content is divided into sections, and Morse this afternoon is making the transition from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, led by Farah, to the study of a host of legal and moral issues.
    “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a value-free definition of mental disorders, especially if we’re going to think about them in medicalized or psychiatrized terms, as most of us do? Well, the problem is that’s very difficult to do with behavior,” he says. “Because behavior is obviously going to be imbedded in culture.”
    No one knows what causes mental disorders, Morse goes on to say. “Do not think for a minute that because we have treatments that seem to be effective, and indeed, are effective, that that tells you what the cause is.” For example, Prozac, which affects the neurotransmitters in the brain, seems to be good for depression. “Does that mean that depression is a neurotransmitter problem?” Maybe so, he says, and maybe not.
    “Think about this: You get a bad grade on a quiz in Col 002 [this course]. You were in the top of your high-school class. Now your self-esteem is shot to hell and you feel really rotten,” Morse says. “So your roommate pours you a really stiff shot of Scotch and you down it. And all of a sudden, you feel better. Do you suffer from alcohol-deficiency syndrome? I don’t think so.” Later in the hour, Farah gets her turn to make the pitch for a biological basis for mental disorders, continuing a semester of interdisciplinary banter between the two professors (with plenty of give-and-take, as neither scholar takes a hardline approach to these issues). In depressed people, Farah says, parts of the prefrontal cortex and certain subcortical regions are abnormally active, compared to the brains of non-depressed people. And while it’s not the case, she says, that you can “take a brainscan of a person and tell whether that person is depressed,” a number of “differences in brain function are interestingly correlated with the severity of a depressive episode. And, by and large, they’re only there when a person is depressed.” Evidence shows that “the more time you spend depressed, the more likely you are to get depressed again,” Farah adds. “My guess is that the hyperactivity in these brain circuits lowers the threshold for descending into depression, which is a reason for seeking treatment early.
    “If you scan [a person’s brain] between episodes of depression, then the brain looks normal with one exception: the higher the amygdala activity, the more likely you are to relapse.” While functional changes may come and go, Farah notes, they seem to result in lasting structural changes. Scientists conjecture that when you are acutely depressed, “what you have are these out of control, unhealthy levels of activity that actually kill neurons in these parts of the brain.”
    “My original picture of this course,” says Farah during a phone interview, “was that the three of us would interact a lot. I kind of had the Car Talk radio show in mind. I thought the three of us would make a good Tom and Ray—and someone else—on the brain. But then at the beginning of the semester we decided to be more restrained for the sake of letting students participate in discussions. As the class has overcome its shyness and started to talk more, we’ve become a little more gabby ourselves.”
    When she heard the College was looking for team-taught courses to offer in the pilot curriculum, Farah, who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, says, “It occurred to me that [this field] is ripe for that kind of interdisciplinary approach. Not only is it an exciting new science in terms of what we’re learning in the lab, but it’s got important implications for the way we think about ourselves as people, as moral agents, and about various kinds of social-policy issues and legal issues.”
    She immediately thought of Morse, whom she had met at a party a year or two earlier. “Our conversation is still so vivid in my mind because he is such a ball of fire. He really enjoys the sort of controversy that brain-based analyses of human behavior engender, so we had this rollicking kind of discussion.” Samuels was “highly recommended” to her by mutual acquaintances—“and he has just been a fantastic person to teach with too.”
    On the whole she thinks the pilot program is a “great way to define a curriculum and get students engaged right away in exciting ideas that don’t necessarily fit into traditional academic-department categories—and for them to see faculty from different disciplines interacting.”
    Team-taught, interdisciplinary courses are hardly a radical idea on college campuses, Beeman points out. But “at a time when the knowledge base is expanding, even exploding, so rapidly, I think a concerted effort to open up broad fields of knowledge to our students is a very important experiment.”
    “I would say at least some of the students seem really turned on by this interdisciplinary nexus of ideas,” Farah says. “My one worry, and I’m guessing it’s generalized to the other classes, is that some of the bridges between fields we’re trying to make are really so ambitious that it might be a little overwhelming for a first-year student. The quizzes and exam will tell for sure.”
    Farah hopes the class will give students “a new perspective on a lot of other fields they might go into,” including cognitive neuroscience. “Thinking about the human mind and what makes people do what they do is relevant to everything from history to art to an engineering problem that involves a user interface.”


High Ideals and Hot Air
    “It’s an incredibly depressing history.” Rick Beeman is leaning over a table in his Logan Hall office, speaking with great animation about American curricular reform over the past two centuries, while his Bernese mountain dog, Chief Justice John Marshmallow, presides sleepily over the carpet.
    “From Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard who introduced an all-electives curriculum in 1869—a brilliant and bold idea” which, after years of faculty debate, “got shot down”—to the present, Beeman says, “the history of faculty discussions of curricular proposals is one of disputation, of passionate defense and of disciplinary self-interest.”
    Professors are among “the smartest people in the world,” he goes on to say, “and their powers of abstract reasoning exceed those of any other occupational group. So you get faculty involved in a hypothetical, abstract debate of an ideal curriculum, and you get a lot of impressive argumentation and hot air.”
    As a result, revamping a college curriculum can be “a wearying process. And most of the time, whatever kind of incisiveness existed in an original curricular proposal gets sort of watered down.” Beeman hopes this won’t happen at Penn. “The hope is that when we have the real debate on our next curriculum, we’ll have a lot of empirical evidence that will enable the faculty to come to a conclusion.”
    The faculty here “is more engaged in undergraduate education than just about any faculty I know of,” he adds. “The challenge is engaging their attention in a purposeful way that will enable us to move forward consensually to find the right curriculum for Penn”: one that “suits the culture of the institution and which the faculty fervently, sincerely and uncynically believe in.”
    One obstacle to the implementation of the pilot curriculum, he acknowledges, is that a number of the science faculty “abhor the idea.”
    Dr. Eric Weinberg, professor of biology, is one of the critics of the curriculum, arguing that it doesn’t give non-science majors enough exposure to pure science. He’d like to see at least one general-requirement course delve deeply into a physical science and another into biological science, instead of the interdisciplinary approach that is being used. He also contends that the general-requirement courses, while good classes in their own right, take away from the time science majors need to fulfill their many course requirements. “And if a student is thinking of doing a biology major, but is not doing quite so well,” he says, “they also have to explore alternative majors” early on at Penn. “If they take the pilot curriculum, it’s not possible to do that.”
    The third objection Weinberg has, “is more of a problem of philosophy. I would rather see depth than breadth,” he says. “I would recommend the general-requirement plan adopted by the University of Rochester,” in which students must choose a major along with two concentration areas, each consisting of at least three related, advanced-level courses.
    Dr. Larry Gladney, associate professor of physics and chair of the pilot-curriculum general-requirement committee, has heard complaints from science faculty that students won’t be exposed sufficiently to the scientific method or learn enough about an individual discipline to know if they would be interested in pursuing it. He’s also heard arguments about the potential negative impact that the general requirements could have on scheduling for science majors. But, he says, “I haven’t seen, with the students I’ve been advising, any particular concern. They come in pretty much knowing what they want to do with science and understanding that they’re going to be exempted from the [Earth, Space and Life] requirement anyway, and therefore take it out of only a general interest. They relish having more freedom to take other courses.”
    “I think we have to be more creative,” adds Gladney, who created a couple of interdisciplinary science and math courses for freshmen through the existing curriculum. “Science faculty tend to be rather set upon the specific discipline they’re in.”
    “We have a lot of evidence,” Beeman says, “to suggest that this method [of concentration], however good it may be for training students who are exceptionally talented in a particular discipline, has only caused those students who have entered Penn fearful and ignorant of science to leave Penn similarly fearful and ignorant of science.
    “The issue of science education for students who are not going to be scientists is one, I believe, of vital importance not only to Penn but to the nation,” Beeman continues. “As Frank Warner has said, ‘Do we want members of Congress voting on appropriations for science agencies, who are mostly going to be non-scientists, to be as ignorant of the basic ideas in science as most of our non-science population is today?’”
    Warner says he’ll be curious to find out if more students decide to become science majors under the pilot curriculum. Another question to consider, Beeman says, is whether those who do not become science majors are motivated to take additional science classes outside the pilot requirements. They’ll be sifting through transcripts over the next four years for clues. In addition, Beeman says, the College should find a way to test students on their general scientific literacy at the beginning and end of their University careers.

Going Global
    Throughout the semester, they’ve pored over texts on imperial conquest and analyzed foreign trade, but the topic for discussion in today’s Globalization and its Historical Significance class happens to be one many students can personally relate to: clothing. Dr. Mauro Guillén, a sociologist who is assistant professor of management at Wharton, has asked the class to visit local retailers and snoop through the labels to find out where the clothes they wear are made. Partitions are drawn in the large classroom, so Guillén and the other two faculty members teaching this course—Dr. Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology—and Dr. Lee Cassannelli, associate professor of history —can work with smaller groups.
    It quickly becomes clear, based on students’ findings in Guillén’s discussion group, that there exists a complex relationship between geography and price-tag. One student went to Nordstrom and was amazed to find a coat “designed in France.” But when he looked at the label more carefully, he discovered it was manufactured in Hong Kong.
    “That’s a gimmick, right?” Guillén says. “Designed in Italy, made of French materials, assembled in Sri Lanka. Because if they only say ‘made in Sri Lanka,’ it probably will be more difficult for that firm to go out and charge a higher price. This tells you where the money is going.”
    To show students how this phenomenon extends beyond the clothing industry, he cites the example of the French company that sells Laughing Cow cheese. “They actually make the cheese in different places in the world with local milk and local ingredients. But they know they can sell it for a higher price if they claim somehow that’s it’s a French cheese. So on the label, they say,. ‘Laughing Cow Cheese, printed in France.’ And on the back, they say, ‘Made in the USA.’”
    The class analyzes what goes into the pricetag on brand-name athletic shoes and discusses how less than 10 percent of the cost comes from labor. The students report mixed feelings about wearing clothes made by people whose salaries fall well below the American minimum wage. “My problem with it is there’s no opportunity for improvement within those countries,” one student says, while another questions what options she has. “What am I going to do, go naked?”
    “You can ask those corporations to be accountable,” Guillén suggests. Human-rights groups do want Nike to make money, “but they want Nike and all the others to make less money,” he says. “It strikes me that there is some room for improvement.”
    In Guillén’s view, general-requirement classes in the pilot curriculum are “a great idea to broaden and expose [students] to some of the most important issues affecting the world right now. It gives students a breadth of knowledge that helps them tackle some of the big issues better.”
    In the globalization class, he explains, “We’re trying to not only give them data and events, but also different ways—anthropological, historical, sociological—of thinking about it.” And, he points out, “Not only do we come from different national backgrounds—I’m from Spain, Brian is British and Lee is American—but we’ve also done research on different parts of the world. Within the confines of this teaching team, we have expertise on pretty much every major region of the world.
    “Of course,” he says, “we always have to remind ourselves that these are first-year students. They cannot be as sophisticated as seniors with their approaches.”
    Most of them, anyway.

Zwelithini Tunyiswa

Zwelithini Tunyiswa’s first name, roughly translated from the Xhosa language, means “Child of the World.” “I’ve kind of stuck with it,” says the freshman, who hails from Capetown, South Africa, but has spent the past several years studying and traveling in other countries. Tunyiswa C’04, who speaks “probably 10” different languages and wants to double-major in communication and international relations, embraces the idea of bridging disciplinary and cultural boundaries. So it’s fitting that he chose to participate in the pilot curriculum and that he selected Globalization for his first general-requirement class. He seems at home in the class, where he is preparing a research paper that examines the migratory patterns of Europe during the Roman Empire, the time of Charlemagne and the present European Union.
    One reason is because of his personal experiences with race and with a global education. “Imagine you’re a connoisseur of racism,” he says. “The filet mignon would be South Africa. The system is messed up and it’s going to take 30 to 40 years to get to the bottom of the problem,” Tunyiswa says. “From there I went to [high school in] California, where everything is PC, and everybody seems happy. I thought they were high most of the time.” He then enrolled in Britain’s United World College of the Atlantic, a prep school with students from 90 different countries, “where all cultures are mingling. Israelis and Palestinians were lofting together.”
    As he reads in his English literature class about race in America through the eyes of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, Tunyiswa is still trying to decipher Penn’s social culture, which he has found less rewarding so far than his academic life.“Penn is very diverse, but the diversity never mixes.” He sees a predominantly white fraternity scene and an African-American scene. “I’m stuck in between because I’m neither. I stay in my room.”
    Many of the topics covered in the globalization class aren’t new to him. But he appreciates how the topics are approached from different perspectives. “The way these disciplines are distinct, yet similar, is very interesting to me. Maybe the subject matter is wide,” he says, “but I think it’s beautiful that it’s wide.”


Making the Choice
    After accepting invitations to enroll at Penn last spring, incoming freshmen had two weeks to decide whether or not to participate in the pilot program. The College was very careful to be balanced in how it presented the pilot to incoming freshmen, Kent Peterman says. They didn’t want students to feel pressure either way, so in the materials they sent out to students they emphasized that the College would continue to support both curriculums for the next four years—and “we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
    “We probably succeeded pretty well in that,” says Peterman, “because we didn’t get a flood of students” volunteering for the pilot curriculum. Three hundred signed up; two hundred were accepted. The others are serving as a control group for the study.
    Although students in the pilot program receive the same type of academic advising as those opting for the regular curriculum, Peterman believes the pilot program will ultimately enhance students’ advising experience—and demonstrate ways to improve this service across the board. One reason is that with the reduced number of general-requirement courses, advisors will be more familiar with the content of those courses and will be better able to guide students based on their affinity or aversion for one of the classes.
    (Independent of the pilot project, the College has already revamped its advising program, providing more training and ensuring that students are matched up with one primary academic advisor from their first semester until they select a major at the end of their sophomore year. Under Penn’s old academic system, students were assigned four advisors with different functions. The result was that they often didn’t know who to turn to first. Peterman hopes that with the new structure “some sort of relationship develops and [students are] going to count on their [advisors’] assistance along the way whenever they need it.”)
    To the extent that they are able to comment on a program that is so new—and to which they have no prior college experience to compare—the students interviewed at random about the pilot curriculum expressed mostly positive views.
    Justin Collins C ’04, a freshman from Teaneck, N.J., likes the idea of having multiple professors in the general-requirement classes and enjoys sampling such unfamiliar disciplines as Qing Dynasty literature. He’s taking “The Self Portrait,” taught by Dr. Tina Lu, assistant professor of Chinese and Middle Eastern studies; Dr. Catriona MacLeod, assistant professor of German; and Dr. Larry Silver, professor of the history of art. “It kind of works together and you don’t get bored with it because you’re not” spending that much time on one subject. “If you get bored with Chinese plays, you move into art history.”
    Several students said they would like more variety in the general-requirement classes offered. “There are no classes that sound interesting in the spring,” says Huang C’04, from New York. Collins agrees: “There really isn’t much to choose from. They need to add more classes so you don’t feel locked-in in terms of the courses you do have to take—even though it’s a very free curriculum in most ways.”
    It would be nice to give students more options, Peterman says, but adding courses is not that simple. Since the goal is to adopt a curriculum for the entire College, the courses being tested now should be similar in size to the ones that would be offered later, and Penn can’t afford to provide seminar-sized classes to the entire student body. Still, the College probably will add a couple more courses to the mix next fall to accommodate the enrollment of 200 additional students, from the Class of 2005, in the pilot curriculum.
    As the curricular experiment moves on to its second semester, College administrators admit they still have many things to figure out, such as how the mandatory research projects will be monitored and precisely how the pilot program will be evaluated.
    “Certainly, the student response to this is going to be very important,” Peterman says. “But I think we also need to get beyond thinking of this as a customer-satisfaction survey. We need to have more confidence in what we’re doing as educators.” The evaluation committee will also be interested in what faculty think of it, “especially advisors,” he says. “Because they’re going to see better than anyone else, I think, how this is getting put together for individual students.”
    Of course, many of the goals for the pilot curriculum can’t be easily quantified. “The most inspiring moments of my time as dean are looking at those of our students who do make the most of their educations here,” Beeman says. “What they do boggles the mind. But the most depressing moments are looking at those students who do the opposite. And what is so amazing is there is often very little difference in terms of the academic profiles of these two groups.” They all come to Penn with high SAT scores and high class ranks. “What I want the pilot curriculum to do more than anything else,” he says, “is to inspire a passion for this extraordinary learning opportunity that students have.”


SIDEBAR

“An Opportunity to Get the Best”

“Here was a narrow channel in which the waters flowed deep and clear; through this, the channel of the old humanities, alone, could you reach the ocean of cultivated human thought, and this carried well the cargo of the lawyer, the doctor and the clergyman of old time. But it could carry no more. Now a dozen different channels have broken through, short cuts, some of them running as yet turbid and muddy, wandering and misleading, but all with the same ultimate object—the attainment of the high seas of science and cultivated human thought.”
—Dr. Felix E. Schelling C1881, The Alumni Register (October 1914)


All of this over the demise of the Greek requirement.
    After one-and-a-half years of passionate debate, the faculty at Penn in 1914 voted overwhelmingly to eliminate the required study of Greek for the bachelor of arts degree. Students now needed to study only one of the classical languages, Latin or Greek, in addition to a modern language. By 1930, the classical-language requirement would be dropped altogether.
    Though Schelling, a professor of history and English literature at the University who argued that the requirement was outmoded and was driving potential students away from the College, welcomed the change, many alumni did not.
    “Apparently the retention of Greek would not seem to have the effect of keeping away students from our nearest neighbor,” William Ashbrook C1887 retorted in the Alumni Register, referring to rival Princeton. “There has been a tendency perhaps among the alumni to lay too much stress upon mere numbers as a test of the growth of our own or any other university. Too much may be sacrificed to numerical growth. A university ought to be a ‘People’s College’ only in the sense that it affords the people an opportunity to get the best. Harm is done both a university and the people when something less than the best is labeled ‘just as good.’”
    As the University’s archives show, curricular change—and acceptance —happens at a creeping pace. A peek at Penn’s course guides over the decades, along with other accounts, reflects shifting priorities in higher education. Here are some highlights along the way:

The Early College
    Scanty records exist for the University’s earliest curriculum, but in his History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940, Edward Potts Cheyney draws insights from Provost William Smith’s “The Scheme of a Liberal Education,” published in the Philadelphia Gazette as well as in the provost’s own papers.
    According to Cheyney, it was “the earliest systematic arrangement in America of a group of college studies that did not follow medieval tradition and did not have a specific religious object.” Although the curriculum was supposed to be tested for only three years, it was used at the College well into the 19th century.
    Smith prescribed a three-year course of study (with three academic terms in each year) for freshmen, juniors and seniors. The school day was divided roughly into thirds, consisting of lessons in Latin and Greek; mathematics and natural science (which included trigonometry, conic sections, botany, physics, astronomy, chemistry and zoology); and logic, ethics, natural physics and oratorical training.
    Smith proposed that three years should be adequate for “a middling genius with ordinary application” to complete these studies, arguing that in the absence of these traits, “no time will be found sufficient for a college education.”

Choice in the Late-19th Century
    Dr. Charles J. Still´é, a professor of belles-lettres and English literature who would become the University’s 10th provost, proposed an elective system at Penn in the 1860s. The faculty and trustees approved the plan by January 1867. In its first years, freshmen and sophomores still followed a strict course of study. During their junior and senior years, however, students preparing for a bachelor of arts degree could choose between ancient and modern languages, as well as between science, history and English literature courses. “It is hard to realize, now that self-determination in the choice of studies has gone so far,” Cheyney wrote in 1940, “how revolutionary this disruption of the prescribed curriculum was considered to be.”
    Among the electives listed in Penn’s 1887 course guide were Hebrew, Sanskrit, mineralogy, and “demonstrations of the anatomy of a typical mammal.”
v In Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America, Christopher Lucas recounts how controversial the elective system—growing in popularity —was among the nation’s educators in the late-19th-century. He quotes Bryn Mawr College President Carey Thomas’s lament that, “In many colleges everything that is desirable for a human being to learn … counts toward the bachelor’s degree … [including] ladder work in the gymnasium (why not go upstairs?) … [or] swimming in the tank (why not one’s morning bath?)” With the advent of the elective system, Lucas wrote, “the idea of acquaintance with any fixed body of knowledge, classical or otherwise, began to disappear.”

The 20th Century: Concentration and Distribution
    By 1900-01, the 60 hours (roughly equivalent to credits) needed to graduate were to consist of six hours in foreign languages; six hours in English and English literature; two hours in history; two hours in logic and ethics; two hours in mathematics; and four hours in chemistry and physics.
    Students then had to choose two or three subjects from a wide-ranging list and complete an additional six to nine hours of classes in each of those subjects. The remaining 20 hours needed to graduate could come from electives of their choosing.
    By 1915, students were selecting actual “majors,” consisting of nine units (with one unit equal to an hour of weekly instruction for one year). To
balance out this increasing specialization, Penn, like many other American universities, introduced distributional requirements to provide students, regardless of their major and occupational goals, with a basic grounding in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Over the years the emphasis would shift slightly from one area to the other, and back again.
    In 1950-51, for example, graduation requirements included the following:
Basic group: English—(six semester credits, with each credit equal to an hour of instruction each week per academic term); intermediate study of foreign language (six semester credits); math or logic (six credits).
Distributive group: natural sciences (12 credits, with six credits to come from courses in astronomy, chemistry, geology or physics and six credits to come from botany, psychology or zoology); social sciences (12 credits, with six from economics, political science or sociology, and six from anthropology, history or philosophy); literature and the arts (15 credits).
PE or military training (four credits)
Major requirements (at least 32 credits)
Free electives (37 credits)
    By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the distributional requirements were relaxed—in keeping with the times—to include fewer courses, with more flexibility, within the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The PE requirement also was dropped, and the number of courses needed to graduate dropped from 40 to 32.

Clusters:
    In 1974-75 the University introduced course clusters, providing a more liberal structure to general education in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Students had the option to choose from three types of study:
Cluster-Minor Program, taking at least three courses with a common “thematic, disciplinary or methodological” bond in each of the two areas distinct from their major.
Major-Plus-Minor Program, studying at least two different areas in depth. The minor, consisting of six to eight courses with “a common intellectual bond,” must be different not only in distributional area but also in mode of thought and methodology.
Three Minors Program, requiring no major but instead a concentration of six to eight courses in each distributional area: humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
    This plan was kept in place until 1987, when the current curriculum was adopted. (See main story for description.)

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