College Programs Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All

The “problem of general education” haunts any college trying to design a core curriculum, but standardizing across schools is a poor solution.
  • Transcript


Question: What would be your ideal solution to the “problem of general education?"

Louis Menand:  Yes, general education, of course, are the courses that every student’s required to take in order to graduate from college.  And most colleges that have a general education requirement, so called, use a distribution model, I think that’s what Yale uses, in which students have to take three courses, usually, in each of the three divisions in the academy, natural science, social science, and arts and humanities.  And generally, they can take any three courses.  So that doesn’t really add up to a very prescriptive curriculum, obviously, because students can cherry-pick the courses that they’re interested in, or the courses they think will be easy.

So a real general education model that is, say, one that I think has some legitimacy is one that has requirements that actually are shaped by a rationale of the particular kinds of knowledge that students are going to need.  Columbia has one, Harvard has one, Stanford and Princeton have them, obviously Chicago, St. John’s, they have a Great Books curriculum, and so on.  So, those are the models that are available.

My own view is that the general education curriculum that a college picks has to be appropriate for the kind of student body that it has.  I don’t think the same curriculum fits every student body.  Now, that’s a little bit of a circular proposition, because Columbia has this Great Books curriculum, it’s called Literature and Humanities in the Contemporary Civilization, and they’ve had the same, roughly the same curriculum for about 50 years.  So when students apply to Columbia, they already know, they’re already selecting that curriculum, that’s something that they want when they apply to college.  If you were to impose such a curriculum at Harvard or Yale, students would object, probably, on the grounds that they’re being required to do something that they basically didn’t opt for when they applied.  So Columbia kind of gets away with it because it’s grandfathered in, so to speak, to the institution.

I think at a place like Harvard, our experience, I was involved with, at various stages, in trying to implement a new general education curriculum, our experience was that Harvard’s all about specialization, that’s not just true of the professori, it’s also true of a lot of the undergraduates, too, and they come, they kind of know what they want to do, they select it because they have a strong aptitude for something in particular.  So to try to have a kind of one-size-fits-all general education curriculum for them will probably not fly.  You know, you have to have students wanting to take the courses, otherwise you’re not going, they’re not going to be very effective.

So Harvard has something that manages, I think, to provide a lot of options for students, but still fairly prescriptive about the kinds of subjects that the courses ought to cover.  Just started, the new curriculum has just begun this year, it actually seems to have gotten off to a pretty good launch.

Question: To what extent are curricula shaped by “consumers” (parents of students)?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, zero.  Because, I mean, ideally, zero.  Because the way universities operate is the decision about what students need for the degree are... is the decision made by the faculty.  Should not be made by any other group, administrators, trustees, parents, students, and so on.  Obviously input is helpful to faculty in trying to come up with a curriculum, but ultimately it’s the faculty’s job to know what students need to know.  Make a decision about it and present it.

The difficulty with coming up with a curriculum is mainly that faculty aren’t trained to think in terms of general education.  They’re trained to think in terms of their own discipline, or their specialty.  So when they’re asked, what are your views about what everybody ought to know, it’s not something that they’ve ever really given thought to, it’s not part of their training.  They have views, but they tend to be quite eccentric and quite different from one another.  So getting faculties to come to a consensus about something that they’ve never really thought about or had to worry about in their careers before can be a rather slow process and a long process, it certainly was the case at Harvard, and it’s the case with most of the general education curricula that I know of, it takes four or five years just to get everybody on board with one idea.