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Over 200 members of Yale’s faculty voted to fundamentally change its college curriculum last week.
A majority of professors approved several significant alterations to undergraduate education at Yale: changing distribution requirements, giving faculty councils the power to sort courses into academic areas themselves and—most contentiously—making sure every Yale student graduates having taken at least one foreign language course.
The decision comes as University administrators, faculty and students continue to hash out recommendations for Harvard’s own curricular review, aiming to produce a report by the end of the academic year.
Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 said the Yale vote was an “encouraging sign” for Harvard.
“The Yale review was more focused than the one we are undertaking,” Gross wrote in an e-mail. “That being said, I think it was quite successful.”
The meeting marked the culmination of Yale’s 16-month curricular review.
Each of the three resolutions passed by comfortable margins at a faculty meeting last Thursday, according to Dean of Yale College Richard H. Brodhead.
“Given the amount of input that went into the recommendations, I have been hoping the faculty would embrace them by a good margin, with some honest dissent of course,” Brodhead wrote in an e-mail. “So the vote Thursday went about as I had expected.”
The committee’s report called Yale’s 30-year-old assortment of distribution requirements “almost spectacularly vague.”
The system mandates taking at least three course credits in each of four broad academic areas—Group I (languages and literatures), Group II (other humanities), Group III (social sciences) and Group IV (mathematics and natural sciences).
But the committee said the distribution requirements don’t effectively guarantee that students graduate with any sort of specific knowledge base or set of skills.
“In the most blatant failure of the current system, whether a course counts for satisfying a distributional requirement is now a function of the instructor’s department,” the report reads, “not its particular intellectual content.”
This, along with a “relative scarcity” of science classes available to non-science majors, creates “a perverse incentive to satisfy the science requirement by seeking the [science courses] with the least scientific content,” according to the report.
And so the committee recommended that requirements be revised so that students will now have to take two classes in each of three areas: the humanities and arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences.
In addition, however, every Yale student will be required to take two writing and two quantitative reasoning-centered courses before graduation.
This change, said David Gershkoff ’06, chair of Yale’s Academics Committee—a student group within the Yale College Council that discusses educational issues—will pave the way for a more complicated system of requirements.
“You have two problems [with the current system],” Gershkoff said. “One of them is the fact that you can get your Groups I’s without writing, two, you can get your Group IV courses without math.”
The new requirements, he says, will still ensure a broad education for Yale students while addressing those two weak areas.
The change to the language requirements, which Gershkoff said were likely more welcomed by the students, was a point of hot contention among faculty. The Yale Daily News reported that about 75 percent of those present voted to accept the change.
Yale had previously not required that any entering student demonstrating proficiency in a foreign language take language classes at college. The faculty’s vote now mandates that every student in the college take at least one language course.
Additionally, while students not demonstrating proficiency used to have to take four language classes, they are now required to complete just three.
Several professors protested the latter change, saying it would leave students with a less complete knowledge of another language.
“It marks a debasement of our curriculum,” Former Yale College dean and history professor Donald Kagan told The Yale Daily News.
Ethics, Politics and Economics director Seyla Benhabib, a former Harvard professor, said she voted against the changes because there was not enough discussion of the committee’s recommendation.
“There was a lot of concern [from] my colleagues in the language departments about the specifics of the proposal,” Benhabib told The Yale Daily News. “I did not like the fact that the committee was so defensive and that they did not entertain enough objections and counterarguments.”
But Gershkoff said both aspects of the faculty’s decision would benefit students, and that he knew many students who loved languages enough to begin a third or a fourth while at Yale.
“As Dean Brodhead said, language is not something in which you get to a level of proficiency and then stop as soon as possible,” Gershkoff added.
Lessening the requirements for students without proficiency, he said, would make the requirement less burdensome while keeping language central.
The third faculty decision will allow faculty councils to determine which of the academic areas a course should fall into. Previously, courses were assigned to areas based on which department the professor who taught it belonged to.
Brodhead said he was pleased about the tone and scope of the review and about the dedication of those who participated.
“Independence of intelligence is a central virtue in an academic community, so it would be wrong to expect unanimous agreement in an exercise like this,” he added. “But we’re all in it together and I expect good cooperation even from those who voiced dissent.”
—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at email@example.com.
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