Sending Signals to Students

Through its new curriculum, Penn stresses science and math and deemphasizes the role of AP courses.
April 22, 2005

Every curriculum sends a set of signals, so any curricular review gives a college the chance to broadcast messages to its students (and the larger world, if it cares) about what it thinks is important. In restructuring its undergraduate general education curriculum this week for the first time in nearly 20 years, here are some of the things the University of Pennsylvania had to say:

  • At a place perhaps best known for its business and other preprofessional programs, the liberal arts matter, too.
  • Advanced Placement courses should challenge students in high school, not exempt them from work in college.
  • Students shouldn't come out of college without being meaningfully exposed to a culture other than the United States.

The curriculum approved overwhelmingly Tuesday at a meeting of Penn's faculty resulted from several years of work in which Penn engaged in an unusual experiment in which it put two groups of students through completely different courses of study and gauged the results.

The overarching conclusions of that experiment -- that reducing the number of requirements did not make students more adventurous in their academic choices, and that most students will avoid certain kinds of courses (especially math and science) unless they're forced to take them -- influenced the new curriculum, which simplifies and shrinks the current number of requirements on students.

Penn's new plan (to find it, click on the link to "curriculum review") will require students to take at least one course in each of seven "sectors" or subject areas: society, history and tradition, arts and letters, living world, physical world, humanities and social sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics. (In general, these courses are meant to be taken outside students' majors, so most students will be able to "double count" only one of them toward fulfilling their majors.)

In addition, Penn students will need to take one course in each of five "skills and methods" areas: writing and communication, language, quantitative data analysis, formal reasoning and analysis (courses in such things as math, computer science and formal linguistics) and global cultural analysis.

The last two were added to the plan only in the last several weeks, and the latter remains somewhat controversial and in a state of flux: As currently conceived, students would have to study a foreign culture, but Dennis DeTurck, dean of the college of arts and sciences and a lead architect of the curriculum plan, says there was "some sentiment" among faculty members that students be able to study a culture within American society, such as a minority group.

"The faculty has agreed in principle to the notion of it not being a United States culture, from the view that without a certain amount of prodding, it is possible, and maybe too easy, to go through our curriculum and never experience anything outside the U.S.," says DeTurck. A committee will review and propose an answer to this question.

Exposing students to a broad range of subjects, especially those to which they are not naturally drawn, is the primary point of the new curriculum, DeTurck says. "We really believe in a broad education in the arts and sciences, and coming out and saying that in a forceful way is especially important to do here, in the midst of preprofessional undergraduate schools" like the Wharton School of Business, which is probably Penn's most-visible program.

Several other elements of Penn's plan are worth noting. First, in all areas except foreign languages -- "a battle to fight in the future," DeTurck says -- students will not be able to place out of requirements by virtue of having taken and passed AP courses in high school. "We recognize that AP and its cousins are the markers for the most rigorous courses that students take in high school, and they're very important in that regard. But those courses are not the same as courses here, with professors who are professional practitioners in their field and with students who were the best in many high schools."

He adds: "It gets AP back to what it literally is -- advanced placement, rather than advanced credit."

Lastly, whereas in the past courses that were added at some point to Penn's core curriculum essentially stayed there for life, under the new system university officials will review every 4-5 years those courses that are deemed at the start to fulfill the subject requirements, to ensure, DeTurck says, that they "are in fact still addressing the goals of general education."


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