What are distributional requirements getting at? Every Yalie must take two courses in the sciences, two in the humanities and arts and two in the social sciences. She must also take two semesters of quantitative reasoning, two of writing courses and up to three of a foreign language. The Blue Book states that the undergraduate curriculum “regards college as a phase of exploration … [ensuring] that study is neither too narrowly focused nor too diffuse.” If this is truly the goal, the University has chosen not the best route. Yale’s distributional requirements make what should be the serious business of liberal education into a vexing chore, with “easy” classes substituting for a knowledge of a discipline. The University should either examine students in the areas it requires they study, institute a core curriculum or scotch distributional requirements altogether.
The main problem with distributional requirements is that students can fulfill them without actually learning much. Anyone who’s spent five minutes talking to upperclassmen knows what the easy science, humanities, quantitative reasoning, and social science classes are. You can go through one of these history classes without getting real feedback on essay structure or writing style. You can go through a science class without performing an experiment or reaching a conclusion from evidence. And you can get credit for a math class that most intelligent high school sophomores could ace.
Students know gut classes are a racket. Worse, they’re a waste of time for students. At best, they provide fodder for cocktail party conversation. “Look here, old sport, I’ll tell you, this Darwin fellow had quite an idea about finches.” But a true education in a discipline? No, the mere appearance of the thing, and not even in reality, but on a transcript.
There’s an argument in favor of distributional requirements that concedes their inefficacy at providing true breadth to an education. Instead, they provide exposure. Poets have to give gravity a try, and the future CEO of TwitterFace has at least to skim through Macbeth. But is a gut class really the best way to expose someone to a great tradition of learning? If what Yale wants is to ensure no one graduates without an appreciation for Keats or catalysis or Karl Marx, it could mandate that students in the sciences take specific humanities classes (or read certain texts) and vice versa. It could then test students, to ensure they are proficient in rather than merely acquainted with the multiple traditions outside their major. On that note: does it make any sense to require students to take a language of which they may not know enough to use? Doctoral programs in the humanities often require proficiency in one or more language, and they test proficiency with exams. Is the current system of “do it, but not well” in anyone’s interest?
Yale’s system forces students to take classes unrelated to their majors taught at a low level. It defines liberal education down.
Besides University-wide examinations in subjects currently required through token classes, there are three alternatives to Yale’s current system: the Columbia option, the Oxford option and the Brown option.
At Columbia, students take full-year courses in western literature and political thought, and a semester of writing, of art history, of music theory and of “frontiers of science.”
At Oxford, students take many fewer classes outside their majors than most students at Yale, graduating in three years with Bachelor’s degrees earned under much more stringent requirements than those earned at Yale.
At Brown, students have virtually unlimited freedom — they need only demonstrate “competence” in writing.
Yale’s current goal of providing broad exposure to students specializing in a subject is honorable. But its “everything of something and something of everything” approach can leave students with only one or neither. Yale has three routes: it can get serious about liberal education, requiring fluency in a language, making humanities majors much more strenuous or instituting a core. It can decide its students are better off specialists. Or it can leave its students with the awesome task of directing their own learning. But if it does, it should be honest about it, ridding students and professors of these purely nominal requirements.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .