As shopping period draws to a close, many freshmen (and freshman counselors) have been pondering the merits of the new distributional requirements. Some believe that they are far too complicated; others argue that nothing substantive has changed at all. I, however, wholeheartedly support the new system — which stems from then-Dean Richard Brodhead’s 2003 academic review — because it takes Yale’s already excellent distributional system and makes it even better.
Certainly, the “old” distributional requirements bested Yale’s peers’ programs. They were less overbearing than Chicago’s or Columbia’s (which require students to take a specific core of courses); less convoluted than Harvard’s system (which has more than a dozen different requirements) and less laissez-faire than Brown’s or Amherst’s system (of no distributional requirements at all).
The basis of Yale’s old system was to encourage curricular choice and flexibility while still making sure that students were exposed to a variety of fields. The idea behind the “groups” was that if a Yalie didn’t want to take physics or English or economics or history, he or she would not have to. However, this Yalie should nevertheless be exposed to some science, humanities and social science simply in order to be a better informed and well-read member of society.
But the main problem with the group system, as with most systems, was that it contained loopholes. Yalies could get their natural science courses out of the way without ever touching a calculator. Furthermore, an economics or statistics major who was certainly quantitatively competent still had to take three science courses, none of which would count for his or her major.
Yale’s new distributional system includes three “skills” requirements — writing, quantitative reasoning and foreign language — as well as three “area” requirements — humanities, social studies and science. By the time they graduate, students must take two courses in each skill requirement and two courses in each area requirement, with no overlapping. It may sound more complicated, but it really isn’t. Meanwhile, the benefits of these new requirements are abundant.
Under the new system, students have to take only two science courses (the same two natural science courses they always had to), and two quantitative-reasoning courses, which now include courses in economics and even philosophy, outside what most of us would traditionally think of as Group IV. Most Yalies did well in math class in high school, and this ensures that all of us continue to improve our quantitative abilities while at Yale.
Even more importantly, under the old system, a Yalie could get his or her Group I classes (languages and literature) and IIs (humanities) while avoiding writing. Students could take Group II courses requiring perhaps only one short paper. Students could get through their Group I requirement with conversational language courses and introductory foreign language courses — and never pick up a great work of literature or write a longer essay.
The new system eliminates this loophole by forcing students to take two writing courses in addition to two humanities courses. Certainly, English courses fulfill the writing requirement, but so do many history courses and courses in other departments. This new system ensures that Yalies come out able to write a good paper, while still maintaining the University’s signature freedom in allowing students to choose how they fulfill requirements.
The final change is the foreign-language requirement. Yale’s old language requirement split Yale into roughly two categories: those who placed out and never had to take language again, and those who had to spend six credits on language classes. Neither category really benefited. In terms of the first group, language should not be something to complete as quickly as possible and then never touch again — foreign language has to be studied to be maintained. And for the second group, a student had to spend one-sixth of his or her Yale education studying a language, which often became punitive and outweighed other distributional requirements.
The new system fixes both these problems. It forces students who place above the intermediate level of a language to either take (the equivalent of) a fifth semester of it, or take two semesters of a new language. For students who come to Yale with no background in a foreign language, it only requires them to take three semesters, leaving room for more electives.
All in all, these changes will help Yale graduate more well-rounded students. They will ensure that every student can complete a problem set. They will ensure that every student can write clearly and coherently. And they will ensure that all students will improve and strengthen their foreign language skills while at Yale. Most importantly, Yale graduates will be just as well-rounded — and still have had as much curricular freedom as possible.
David Gershkoff is a senior in Branford College and former chairman of the Yale College Council Academics Committee.