This editorial is the third in a four-part series about the academic review.
While universally acclaimed, the concept of a liberal education is rather elusive to define. As the academic review committee surveys Yale’s curriculum, clarifying the expression of the University’s liberal philosophy must be an overarching goal.
In working to reach that end, it is tempting to suggest that the committee overhaul the distributional requirements. The current system is flawed in that the distributional groups represent only a broad lunge at a bundle of academic subjects, rather than an attempt to expose students to several different methods of thinking, as a liberal education would ideally do. A potential answer would be the creation of skills-based distributional groups — an analysis requirement, for example, could replace Group IV.
While this may be a marginally positive change, it is neither a solution nor something on which the committee should spend vast amounts of time. Just as Group IV represents a broad lunge at departments like Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics, an analysis requirement would be a similar sweep at perhaps Economics, Statistics and Physics. Instead of investing resources to overcome the intellectual and political challenges of remapping the distributional groups, the committee should work to “liberalize” undergraduate education in three main ways.
The first is quite simple — tell undergraduates, especially freshmen, what a liberal education is. Instead of giving incoming students a set of distributional requirements explained only by a short, fine-print description buried in the 500-page Blue Book, the committee should solicit and distribute a short collection of well-conceived recommendations on pursuing a liberal education from professors in a variety of fields. This helpful pamphlet would offer freshmen guidelines that will prove invaluable as they wend their way through Yale academics.
Second, the committee should address the tremendous problem of “gut” science courses for non-science majors. This is a dilemma far easier stated than fixed, but any viable solution must involve creating an incentive for science professors to devise and teach science courses in a rigorous way that still appeals to non-science majors. This cannot happen unless science departments understand that professors teaching these classes will be sacrificing time that could be otherwise spent on individual research or courses for the major.
Finally, the committee must help buck the gradual trend toward an excessively narrow scope of study in many undergraduate courses. While considerable focus is necessary in some advanced classes, too much specificity can turn introductory and mid-level classes into narrow, graduate school-like courses. The answer is two-fold. First, like science departments, other departments must create an incentive for professors to teach broader courses to undergraduates. Second, as the News has advocated before, Yale should hire a number of senior-level faculty with the ability to broaden undergraduate offerings.
As noted above, some of our proposals would require departments to swap a limited amount of research potential for teaching gains. Simply put, that is a necessary trade-off if Yale is to significantly improve its undergraduate curriculum.