Listen to the experts on ACTA's Higher Ed Now podcast

The Forum | General Education

The Promise of Engaged Citizenship: UVA’s New Curriculum

July 17, 2018

In 2016, the University of Virginia’s (UVA) core curriculum, now referred to as the “Traditional Curriculum,” earned the school a “D” grade in ACTA’s What Will They Learn (WWTL) report. Students at UVA were able to graduate having never taken a single course in U.S. Government or History, Economics, Literature, or college-level Mathematics.

In the fall of 2017, UVA amended its general education core, but in doing so created a curriculum that does not satisfy WWTL’s standards for a liberal arts education. Students are permitted to select one of three different sets of General Education curricula: the Forums Curriculum, the New College Curriculum, and the Traditional Curriculum. After exploring their options, incoming freshmen complete an online survey to help them determine their top choice.

An Overview of the New Curricula

In addition to the Traditional Curriculum, both of the new curricula options promise students smaller class sizes and more direct interaction with faculty—two laudable objectives that should not be overlooked. However, the content of the curricula has not improved the university’s standing under ACTA’s criteria.

The Forums Curriculum, which encompasses three to four “forums” per year, features the following for fall 2018: “Via Asia,” “Religion, Politics, and Conflict,” and “Humans, Nature, and Evolution.” Students have the opportunity to choose some literature courses to fulfill distributional requirements in the three forums, and an economics course in only one. While two forums require either math or science courses, “Humans, Nature, and Evolution” students would be able to graduate without ever taking a mathematics or natural science course while at UVA.

The New College Curriculum requires that students take one course from seven distribution categories, three of which offer U.S. Government or History as an option, but not as a requirement. Due to a number of courses included in the curriculum’s “Science & Society” or “Living Systems” requirement that were not very scientific, and due to the overwhelming range of courses available to fulfill each requirement, a student would be able to complete this curriculum without taking courses in college-level mathematics or science, literature, or economics.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is to equip students with the fundamental intellectual skills and comprehensive background to engage proficiently in complex and wide-ranging issues.

Interdisciplinary without Discipline

Both the Forums and the New College curricula have a distinct focus on interdisciplinary studies—which has value in its own right—but students will not flourish intellectually in an interdisciplinary context without first developing mastery of a foundational core of knowledge. Interdisciplinary study on its own does not always help students to develop vital communication skills or the ability to apply well-rounded knowledge in a variety of ways.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is to equip students with the fundamental intellectual skills and comprehensive background to engage proficiently in complex and wide-ranging issues. If students are assumed to be ready for conversations about the world’s greatest challenges as first-semester freshmen, to such an extent that no further training in science, mathematics, economics, literature, or history is required, then why are they taking any courses in the first place?

A General Education?                                                                                       

UVA’s General Education curricula are more tailored than the name suggests. The number of choices students have when selecting courses to fulfill requirements in the New College Curriculum and the Traditional Curriculum does not foster the campus dialogue or shared experiences that many other schools seek when establishing general education programs. Moreover, the Forums Curriculum almost functions as a second major, with very specific requirements for a select group of students who may bypass whole sections of academic study.

The road to “engaged” citizenship does not simply entail learning what one might find fun, interesting, or analogous to a future career goal.

Preparing the Nation’s Citizens

UVA’s General Education website explains that all three curricula are designed “to help [students] flourish at UVA, in [their] chosen career, and as an engaged citizen.”

However, the road to “engaged” citizenship does not simply entail learning what one might find fun, interesting, or analogous to a future career goal. Students at UVA may have the pleasure of choice and flexibility, but they miss out on the rigorous preparation for civic life: None of UVA’s curricula require students to take a course about their nation’s history or government, let alone a course covering the foundations of their rights and duties as Americans. And UVA is not alone: Only 17.6% of schools required U.S. Government or History courses as part of their core curriculum in the 2017–18 academic year.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of UVA, wrote in his 1779 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” that Americans can participate fully in democracy only when they are “rendered by liberal education worthy to receive [it], and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Moreover, he stated that the purpose of higher education is “to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order . . . to form them to habits of reflection.”

To this end, Jefferson suggested that UVA should expose students to the most foundational areas of academic study, including ancient and modern languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, government, history, law, grammar, ethics, and fine arts.

UVA must preserve the vision of their university’s founder in the core curriculum to provide students with an excellent liberal arts education.

Rachel Wagner is currently an intern on ACTA’s What Will They Learn?® project. She is a rising senior at Christopher Newport University.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More