Students & Parents | General Education

Vampires, Star Trek, and Disney: Quirky College Classes That Count Toward Graduation

BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK   |  October 17, 2014 by Akane Otani

Students at one college, at least, can meet the class requirements they need for graduation by studying principles of supply and demand as they relate to Captain Kirk. Some analysts are unhappy about that, as they outline in a new report.

The report, released this week by the American Council of Trustees & Alumni, examined 1,098 U.S. colleges and universities to see whether schools that “extol the virtues of broad-based, ‘well-rounded’ liberal arts education” are living up to their promises. The council found that requirements for graduation at many schools lacked what it felt to be basic tenets of a liberal arts education.

“The figures are really disturbing,” says Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at ACTA. Fewer than one in five schools require students to take a class on American history or government, just 13.1 percent of schools require a foreign language, and 3.3 percent of schools require students to take economics.

Some schools, looking to ensure that students are exposed to important subjects without forcing them to take specific classes, have instead used a model characterized by something called distribution requirements—grouping courses under an umbrella of required subjects and allowing students to choose a course within those groups to meet the requirements. The problem, the report states, is that some of the classes that get students an approval for larger subjects sound dubious. “While distribution requirements seem like an appealing idea on paper, in practice they usually allow students to graduate with only a thin and patchy education,” the report said. “Once distribution requirements become too loose, students almost inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses and, all too often, serious gaps in their basic skills and knowledge.”

Below is a selection of some of the courses the report found that students have taken in pursuit of a liberal arts education:

Cartoonish gender roles. At Bates College, students can take “Decoding Disney: Race, Gender & Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster” to fulfill their General Education requirement. In this class, “the full-length cartoons so formative for the current generation of college students become, for us, ‘cultural texts’ subject to anthropological analysis,” the course description (pdf) reads. “Students learn to discern America’s contested beliefs and values by unearthing the cultural politics embedded in Disney Corporation’s mainstay—feature-length animated motion pictures.”

Calling all Mad Men fans. “Mad Men and Mad Women”—based on the hit AMC show—fulfills the Historical Studies requirement at Middlebury College. According to the course description, students will get to answer such questions as, “Are you a Don, a Roger, or a Pete? A Betty, a Peggy or a Joan?” Along the way, they’ll unpack gender roles and cultural expectations in postwar America.

Twilight scholars, unite. “Vampires: History of the Undead,” a course that “looks at how various cultures treat anxiety about death, illness/medicine and even sexuality with tales of vampires and other types of [the] undead,” ticks the Historical Consciousness box at Richard Stockton College.

“The Economics of Star Trek” gets Linfield College students through their U.S. Pluralisms or Individuals, Systems, & Society requirement. Students cannot count the course for an economics major or minor, according to the course description, but they ponder “economic problems of population, environmental degradation, discrimination,” and a slew of other issues that presumably plague the holodeck.

A class for jocks, if there ever was one, “America Through Baseball” satisfies the United States Context requirement at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Although it’s listed as a history course, history majors are restricted from taking it, according to the course description. The students who do get a seat in the class will mull the assertion, “Baseball could not have existed without America,” and consider baseball’s role in history from the 19th century onward.


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