In a Sept. 6 e-mail addressed to “the intellectually curious,” three Columbia University professors invited a small number of undergraduates to participate in an experiment in expanded liberal arts education. The school’s 80-year-old core curriculum is already rigorously inclusive, requiring all students to take a specific lesson plan in contemporary civilization, art, music, literature and philosophy, and logic and rhetoric. But the proposed addition is ambitious even by Columbia’s standards; it would mandate a core course in the sciences.
As it stands now, Columbia’s imposed mathematics and science curriculum is roughly similar to the Group IV requirement at Yale: students must take three semesters of science, two of which must be in succession. The new course would replace the third semester with a series of three lectures given by the school’s top researchers and weekly 20-student discussion sections. This year’s trial will include six lectures on such topics as “Small Wonders: The World of Nano-Science” and “How Your Brain Works (Or Not!).” The hope is that it will teach students to develop scientific methods of thought and provide a more fundamental education than a random third course could give.
At Yale, too, the liberal arts frequently do not include serious science courses for nonscience majors. Yalies often abandon laboratory classes after high school, resign themselves to oversubscribed lectures on Isaac Asimov or basic geology, and begrudgingly fulfill distributional requirements.
If successful, Columbia’s new colloquium will be a model for reintegrating the sciences into humanities-dominated curriculums, filling what the three professors called a “serious hole” that has developed in the school’s core requirements. It is a good idea, and maybe the right change to be made within Columbia’s framework for a balanced education. At Yale, where the liberal arts are more loosely enforced, Dean Brodhead and the academic review committees should strive to make an appropriate change within our own framework.
The reason many Group I, II and III majors here avoid anything but the most basic science courses is not perfectly evident. It could be a pervasive attitude among the humanities-inclined that serious college-level mathematics and science courses are too difficult to even attempt; it could be the long lab sessions and intimidation from premed peers that accompany serious introductory courses; or it could be as simple as the daunting hike up Science Hill.
The possible solutions are more straightforward, if not any simpler than the proposal under consideration at Columbia: Yale should offer more science and math courses with the Credit/D/Fail option. More should be available with few or no pre-requisites. Smaller classes would help too.
Ultimately, though, no one at Yale can be made to take any particular course. Administrative changes here will not stand without cooperation from Yale students. More options and increased awareness will go a long way toward encouraging Yalies to design balanced curriculums for themselves. And the “intellectually curious” at Yale should make every effort to be — and for the most part already are — just that.