Trustees | General Education

Well-rounded curricula must invest in practical disciplines

NEWS GAZETTE   |  December 12, 2016 by Tom O'Laughlin

In a seven-year Harvard adventure, decorated undergrad and law-school scholar Anne Neal never took a math course. Years later, over lunch, she and Professor Jerry Martin explained the need for repairs and a sensibly balanced higher-ed syllabus in Cambridge and beyond; specifically, how their newly founded American Council of Trustees and Alumni ( might go about suggesting curriculum improvements within academia.

That was 1996, four of us gathered around a small table in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., a town that would become and remains ACTA world headquarters. Twenty years later and too many successes to count, Neal has stepped down to become an ACTA senior fellow, and now, CEO of the American Garden Club (really). Her successor, Professor Michael Poliakoff, will carry the torch: Content counts; no more “anything goes.” ACTA translation: “What Will They Learn?”

Learn what? How about graduation conditional on compliance with a curriculum composed of seven disciplines of “What Will They Learn” theory?

Few institutions can match the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus within the STEM groupings and business school. Still, the UI requires just one subject (foreign language) among seven we have noted as a “rounding” to graduate; pointing out a semester or two of exposure to a legitimate topic that should inspire life-long learning is surely worth the investment.

Simply put, the seven disciplines are:

— Economics

— Math

— Foreign language

— Composition

— Literature

— Science

— U.S. history and government

Imposing rigor won’t serve students in search of an easier pathway to graduate, or the bottom line. Gender studies, social studies and the like will impress few human-resource managers.

Sure, the arts and humanities may add an ele- ment of spiritual cleansing for a Pokemon-obsessed undergrad, but not as a dodge to escape the 18th-century enlightenment events that shaped this miraculous country. Or supply-side economics — bogus or not. Or Twain and Hemingway and calculus. Stuff that counts, that lasts.

Given a choice, I’ll take a admonition the University of Chicago dean of students offered to freshmen: “You won’t find safe spaces around here.”

This priceless place deserves no less.


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