Welcome changes to distributional system

In re-evaluating Yale’s current distributional requirement, the academic review committee wisely chose to make small changes but keep the spirit of our core curriculum intact. Far from revolutionary, the committee’s suggestions will nevertheless make considerable progress in some areas toward ensuring, in the report’s words, “breadth of education and fundamental skills.”

The committee’s recognition that writing is a critical component of a liberal arts education and one that should be counted among graduation requirements is an essential one. Its further comment that the development of writing skills is not exclusively under the jurisdiction of English 120 is important. Students leaving Yale should be able to write well, and with the current group classifications and distributional requirements, not all do. By advocating the expansion of the Bass Writing Program and allowing students to take writing courses in any field to fulfill a writing requirement, the committee has put a long-overdue emphasis on composition skills.

When it comes to Group IV, though, it is not the distributional requirements that are the problem so much as it is the way people get around them. Accordingly, making the distinction between quantitative reasoning and natural science is significant only insofar as it refines the theoretical aims of a Yale education. Considerably more valuable is the committee’s suggestion to add more applied science courses and more rigorous courses for nonmajors. Providing more course options for humanities students genuinely interested in learning something about math and science will do much more to fix a system that currently has many coasting through “Natural Hazards” or “Themes in Modern Physics” just to get their diplomas.

Helping this along will be the committee’s particularly shrewd decision to extended the Credit/D/Fail option, which in its current form serves close to none of the purposes for which it was intended. Allowing students to take any lecture class offered in Yale College for credit encourages experimentation by limiting the risk of taking classes on subjects in which students have less ability. It will help control what the committee refers to as “abuses” of the policy because students will be able to take classes in which they have genuine interest, rather than choose from the paucity of offerings that currently carry the option.

We take no issue with the committee’s decision to continue mandating that the classes taken for distributional credit be taken for a grade — it is effectively the same system we have now. We do, however, have concerns about the extension of the Credit/D/Fail option to any class taken beyond the core requirements. Narrowly focused and limited in enrollment as they are, some seminars do not seem the best place for students dabbling in something new. Much of the emphasis and much of the grade in a seminar is based on participation. A student taking advantage of the credit option with anything but the purest intention of working hard without grade penalty could take away from the quality of discussions.

In all, the committee’s proposed amendments to the distributional requirement may not make a tremendous difference for those looking to skirt it in the first place. But the changes to writing and science education are a start toward ensuring we leave Yale with a complete liberal arts education.

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