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A drawing of a white box against a black background. Inside the box are the words, in yellow, "think outside the box," with red arrows pointing outward on each of the box's four flaps.

Over the past 80 years, virtually every graduate from almost every college or university in the United States has completed the same basic academic program:

x major credits + y general education credits + z elective credits = degree

This formula is so familiar that we barely register it.

The model it represents also has intuitive appeal. You study one thing deeply, learn something about a variety of other things and, along the way, you take a few wild-card courses that strike your fancy. Makes sense. We might be forgiven for thinking that college has always been this way.

It hasn’t, of course. This way of organizing postsecondary learning is neither natural nor inevitable. It’s a historical artifact that evolved over time but was cemented in a specific moment by certain people for particular reasons.

It’s time to ask whether this program model has outlived its usefulness. In fact, it’s time to ask whether academic programs as such are serving our, or our students’, needs. Perhaps it’s time to put an end to the program era of U.S. higher education.

The Cold War Curriculum

The specific historical moment I’m referencing is 1945. That was the year Harvard University’s Committee on the Objectives of a General Education in a Free Society released General Education in a Free Society, also known as the Harvard Redbook.

The Redbook offered a framework for what would become what Louis Menand and Carol Geary Schneider, among others, have characterized as the “Cold War Curriculum.” That framework was not altogether new—its elements had been in place for some time—but it locked into place a way of thinking about curriculum that has defined college education in the U.S. ever since.

Harvard president James Bryant Conant charged the committee to address the “problem” of general education in postwar America: how to teach “the liberal and humane tradition” in such a way that it would inculcate in secondary and postsecondary students the obligations of freedom in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized democracy. At the core of the problem, as the committee interpreted it, was the question of “the right relationship between specialistic training on the one hand, aiming at any one of a thousand different destinies, and education in the common heritage and toward a common citizenship on the other.”

This was not, in 1945, a new question. More than a century earlier, in the Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College 1828 (the “Yale Report”), an august committee of that college’s faculty had mounted a vigorous defense of the classical curriculum in defiance of those who called for colleges to be “new-modelled” to better address “the spirit and wants of the age” and accommodate “the business character of the nation.” This tension intensified through the 19th century with the growth of industrialization, professions and specialized disciplines, and land-grant colleges and universities. With the rise of the modern research university came the widespread adoption of the elective system, first developed at Harvard under President Charles Eliot, in which required subjects were dramatically reduced and students were free to pursue the “specialisms” that the Redbook would come to identify as a key shortcoming of midcentury secondary and postsecondary education.

By the time Conant charged his committee, then, the tension between general, liberal education and specialized, practical education was well established as a—perhaps the—shaping force of college study. “The spirit and wants” of the age were (again) demanding their due. But unlike their Yale forbears, the Harvard committee would not take a side; rather, they would seek to formulate “the right relationship” between these competing goods.

Most of the Redbook is devoted to secondary education, but it’s what the committee had to say about college that concerns us here. While it was careful to confine its comments to Harvard, the committee knew that the report would reverberate through the sector, as of course it did. In any case, the committee’s review of Harvard’s academic programs was mixed. The College’s “system of concentration” was declared a “distinct success”—“clear, definite, and full of content.” The committee found that concentrations (majors) provided a student “a remarkably penetrating experience in the field of his [sic] choice.” The general education program, on the other hand, was “neglected” and sorely in need of an overhaul. The committee’s primary complaint was the excessive discretion afforded to students in choosing classes, and the lack of “opportunities [the program] provides for the development of a common body of information and ideas which would be in some measure the possession of all students.”

The committee was aware of potential pitfalls of general education proposals. It noted, first of all, that “general and special education are not, and must not be placed, in competition with each other.” Further, it insisted that general education was not merely “adequate groundwork” for specialized study, but “a milieu in which the specialty can develop its fullest potentialities.” General education is an “organism,” the committee proposed, and specialized education is an “organ” within it. Most pointedly, “general education should not be limited to a block of courses which the student is to take and get over with in order to go on with the more interesting and significant special study.”

All of which sounds good. But when the committee turned to making proposals, this framing was thoroughly undermined. The committee proposed that every student be required to take six general education courses, out of a total of 16 total courses required for a baccalaureate degree. Students would be required to take at least one course in the humanities, one in the social sciences and one in the sciences—all in the first two years of study. The humanities and social sciences courses would be specially designed courses required of all students. They would “furnish the common core, the body of learning and of ideas” of Western culture.

It would be hard to imagine a set of proposals that would be more likely to put general and specialized education “in competition with each other” and to cause gen ed to be viewed as merely “groundwork” for specialized study, a grab bag of lower-division courses for students to get out of the way. Indeed, these have become the defining features of the Cold War curriculum.

How—and why—did this happen?

Programmed Thinking

Once source of the problem will be obvious to contemporary readers: the committee’s insistence that students could and should be taught a single (Western) “cultural heritage.” But this, I suggest, is a symptom of a broader malady that we have yet to shake: programmed thinking.

Consider: When we set about to build or revise a general education program, we typically begin with the question, “What should every graduate know and be able to do?” We may congratulate ourselves for not sharing the Harvard committee’s confidence that Western civilization (such as it is) is the answer, but this shouldn’t distract us from the fact that we are asking, in essence, the same question.

We know, or should know, where the question leads. Of course every graduate must have taken a [read: my] Shakespeare course; of course every graduate must have taken a [read: my] statistics course; of course every graduate must have taken at least two [read: our] science courses. And so it goes, the list growing and shrinking with arguments won and lost. It’s surely the same process the Harvard committee went through in coming up with its six course requirements (though few institutions have been able to confine themselves to a list this short). This is not a recipe for a coherent program that contextualizes specialized study.

The real problem, for the committee and for us, is an institutional logic that translates even the best ideas and intentions into a limiting and limited structure called an academic program. This is programmed thinking—the tendency to look for solutions to thorny educational problems in lists of course requirements comprising predetermined curricula.

It’s likely that the committee didn’t recognize it was engaged in programmed thinking, just as we don’t recognize ourselves doing it today, as we wrangle over lists of requirements and add, delete and reorder courses in our majors and gen ed programs. It doesn’t occur to us that there might be other ways of organizing curriculum.

Deprogramming the College Curriculum

We are fond of saying that we are preparing students for a world beset by dizzyingly complex problems and rapid change. We’re right, of course—and so were the educators who produced the Yale Report of 1828 and the Harvard Redbook of 1945 when they said the same thing. The question we face is the same as it’s always been: How can we best engage and prepare students to effectively address urgent challenges while making good livings and leading fulfilling lives?

What if we didn’t answer this question as we always have in U.S. higher education—by generating lists of course requirements and prescribed curricula? What if instead we met the world’s dynamism and unpredictability with a more fluid and emergent approach? What if instead of building programs, we bent our efforts to shaping experiences, projects, problems, challenges, questions—along with tools to help faculty and students co-create learning journeys?

Imagine if, rather than enrolling in programs of study with set course requirements, students developed personal “missions” and then, with the guidance of learning navigators, chose from among a variety of ongoing faculty-led projects, each devoted to addressing urgent social challenges such as coastal erosion, food insecurity, cyberterrorism or sustainable urban infrastructure. These interdisciplinary projects would offer experiences of varying lengths and different levels of immersion and degrees of technical training. Learners would play different roles and research different aspects of the challenges, co-creating learning goals and experiences with faculty. They would earn credits and credentials, from certifications to degrees, as they met learning goals through their contributions to projects. Because these challenges are multidimensional, learners would be expected to develop multifaceted perspectives, developing both specialized expertise and general understandings. In this way, “specialisms” would be contextualized by “general education,” and both would be contextualized by the framing challenges, learners’ evolving missions, and their unfolding learning journeys (unprogrammed curricula).

This is just one, admittedly sketchy approach. The point is that we don’t have to have majors or general education programs—or “programs” at all. In fact, it seems far more likely that students’ specialized expertise and generalized understandings will be fostered, and will mutually inform each other, in contexts of meaningful engagement with real questions, problems and challenges than in a set of required courses whose content and sequence were determined before they set foot on campus and will remain static no matter how they, or events in the world, change over the subsequent four years.

I don’t want to suggest that we have not innovated on the Cold War curriculum. Indeed, transforming general education programs has been the theme of countless conferences, seminars and think pieces. Steven Mintz provides a helpful roundup of some of the more interesting program redesigns of gen ed in recent years. Some programs, like Boston College’s Complex Problems and Enduring Questions Curriculum, Plymouth State University’s Integrated Clusters, and Georgia Institute of Technology’s Vertically Integrated Projects program, engage students in teams and projects designed to address urgent challenges and problems. We’ve also seen institutions eschew traditional majors, from Brown University’s well-established open curriculum to Bennington College’s student-designed areas of study, Grinnell College’s individualized advised curriculum, Wesleyan University’s customized itineraries, and Hampshire College’s student-designed curriculum.

These are important innovations, especially those that involve more than allowing students to choose from among existing courses and curriculum packages. The question before us now is whether we can take inspiration from these efforts and pull down the curtain on the academic program era. Perhaps this time, we can meet the complexity and unpredictability of the world with emergent, co-created experiences rather than yet more lists of course requirements and predetermined curricula.

Chris W. Gallagher is a professor of English at Northeastern University. His most recent book is College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World (Johns Hopkins Press, 2019).

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