Trustees | General Education

Keep liberal arts requirements strong

BALTIMORE SUN   |  December 19, 2016 by Eric M. Bledsoe

The liberal arts face serious, growing challenges in America today: Runaway tuition threatens college affordability; alternative models increase competition; and students and their families fear the combination of high student debt and low job prospects — for good reason. Against this backdrop, liberal arts colleges in Maryland and nationwide are struggling to redefine their value as they adapt to the needs of a changing population. Recent years saw a drop in enrollment at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and, in neighboring Virginia, the near closure of all-women’s Sweet Briar College, thwarted only through the intervention of the state attorney general, wealthy donors and alumnae activists.

As this shake-up continues, too many panicking liberal arts institutions are throwing away their strongest selling point: a rigorous core curriculum.

Take the example of Goucher College in Towson, where a peculiar and self-defeating movement to hollow out the liberal arts core is gaining surprising traction on campus. At present, Goucher remains an exemplary liberal arts program in many respects, with strong requirements across a broad range of core subjects. The college requires all students to take courses in composition, intermediate-level foreign language, mathematics, social science and natural science — good enough to rank in the top third of general education programs, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s national survey.

But this semester, Goucher’s administration has embarked on a campaign to replace its rich, content-driven curriculum with a self-described “You-Focused Curriculum,” on “inquiry” courses. As new provost Leslie Lewis described it in an interview with Goucher Magazine, “Rather than going for breadth, we were really going for connections,” deriding expectations of core knowledge as “a formulaic, check-the-box kind of requirement for students.”

Ms. Lewis continued: “What we really want to start with is students’ own interests, inquiry, and then let them see that they need certain skills along the way in order to really be able to do what they want to do ― let the skills come into play in that way.”

But here lies further proof that high academic standards are as essential as ever: If administrators know what “skills” are needed for postgraduate success, then they have a responsibility to require the courses that exercise and develop those intellectual muscles. Instead, under this new paradigm, Goucher undergraduates will face few requirements and will instead be left to choose from a dizzying array of electives, such as this fall’s course exploring America’s relationship to the wilderness, “Where the Wild Things Are,” named after the children’s book.

Such a shift is simply imprudent. More than ever, a rigorous general education is essential for academic and career success. Without the broad-based foundation a content-driven curriculum ensures, students will be poorly-equipped to define meaningfully their intellectual passions or grapple with more difficult concepts in upper-division courses, and they will lose vital career preparation.

The private sector is rightly concerned by recent college graduates’ limited content knowledge and apparent skills deficiencies. In particular, employers have identified skills in mathematics, science, analysis and writing as the most difficult to find. Surveys confirm that employers increasingly look for candidates with qualities that come from a deep immersion in the liberal arts — strong verbal communication, critical thinking and breadth of knowledge.

Goucher’s leaders, along with those of other colleges that focus on accessibility, deserve enormous credit for their commitment to offering that opportunity to low-income, middle-income and first-generation college students. According to data from the federal College Navigator tool, 90 percent of Goucher students receive grants or scholarships, 55 percent take out federal student loans and 25 percent receive Pell grants based on financial need. The movement to reduce course rigor will be a dramatic step backward for students who see college as a key to social mobility and are investing heavily in it.

Dodging these core graduation requirements will hamper, rather than advance, social and economic mobility. Eliminating aspects of the traditional core curriculum may help fill classroom seats, but it will fail to enrich minds. Students will arrive too late at the unsettling realization that they’ve been intellectually — and financially — short-changed. For these reasons, it’s essential for colleges to guide students through clear requirements to the courses in science, math and the other liberal arts that are foundational for success in career and community.


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.

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