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Former History 1 students may recall with pain the words "trivium" and "quadrivium." These constituted the standard curriculum at the medieval cathedral schools, a curriculum consisting of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Since then higher education has gone on to bigger and better things. Today the Harvard course catalogue lists 53 departments and nearly 1000 courses, and the only commonbond between Harvard graduates is the ability to swim 50 yards.
As a reaction against this educational specialization in American universities, Chicago and Columbia have set up survey courses designed to insert a minimum "common content" into the curriculum, and at St. John's College in Maryland the hundred-best-books course has been instituted. At Harvard the reversion to a curricular common denominator has had only faint beginnings. Two years ago a Student Council committee urged "the restoration of a liberal education at Harvard." Most striking proposal of their lengthy report was the suggestion that five "introductory area courses"--two in the humanities, two in the sciences, and one in the social sciences--be established and all undergraduates required to take them.
Last year the Faculty discussed this revolutionary (for Harvard) proposal at length, and sagely referred it, to a committee. The automatic reaction to the Council's plan was to brand all survey courses as necessarily superficial. But the Council stuck to its guns. Wading through reports on the Columbia and Chicago courses, corresponding with educators all over the country, and consulting with Faculty members here, the Council drew up detailed plans for the five proposed courses.
The recently released report on these courses is an impressive piece of work, demonstrating that they can be just as thorough, and far broader, than existing elementary courses. The Faculty may well balk at compulsion, but if introductory area courses are available, and undergraduates are required to distribute widely in all the major areas, the courses will be virtually mandatory without the stigma of compulsion. When this is done, distribution will be restored to its proper function, and will serve to offset the over-concentration which now characterizes the average undergraduate's formal education.
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