This is Only a Test


“An Opportunity
to Get the Best”

“Here was a narrow channel in which the waters flowed deep and clear; through this, the channel of the old humanities, alone, could you reach the ocean of cultivated human thought, and this carried well the cargo of the lawyer, the doctor and the clergyman of old time. But it could carry no more. Now a dozen different channels have broken through, short cuts, some of them running as yet turbid and muddy, wandering and misleading, but all with the same ultimate object—the attainment of the high seas of science and cultivated human thought.”

—Dr. Felix E. Schelling C1881, The Alumni Register (October 1914)


All of this over the demise of the Greek requirement.
    After one-and-a-half years of passionate debate, the faculty at Penn in 1914 voted overwhelmingly to eliminate the required study of Greek for the bachelor of arts degree. Students now needed to study only one of the classical languages, Latin or Greek, in addition to a modern language. By 1930, the classical-language requirement would be dropped altogether.
    Though Schelling, a professor of history and English literature at the University who argued that the requirement was outmoded and was driving potential students away from the College, welcomed the change, many alumni did not.
    “Apparently the retention of Greek would not seem to have the effect of keeping away students from our nearest neighbor,” William Ashbrook C1887 retorted in the Alumni Register, referring to rival Princeton. “There has been a tendency perhaps among the alumni to lay too much stress upon mere numbers as a test of the growth of our own or any other university. Too much may be sacrificed to numerical growth. A university ought to be a ‘People’s College’ only in the sense that it affords the people an opportunity to get the best. Harm is done both a university and the people when something less than the best is labeled ‘just as good.’”
    As the University’s archives show, curricular change—and acceptance —happens at a creeping pace. A peek at Penn’s course guides over the decades, along with other accounts, reflects shifting priorities in higher education. Here are some highlights along the way:

The Early College
    Scanty records exist for the University’s earliest curriculum, but in his History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940, Edward Potts Cheyney draws insights from Provost William Smith’s “The Scheme of a Liberal Education,” published in the Philadelphia Gazette as well as in the provost’s own papers.
    According to Cheyney, it was “the earliest systematic arrangement in America of a group of college studies that did not follow medieval tradition and did not have a specific religious object.” Although the curriculum was supposed to be tested for only three years, it was used at the College well into the 19th century.
    Smith prescribed a three-year course of study (with three academic terms in each year) for freshmen, juniors and seniors. The school day was divided roughly into thirds, consisting of lessons in Latin and Greek; mathematics and natural science (which included trigonometry, conic sections, botany, physics, astronomy, chemistry and zoology); and logic, ethics, natural physics and oratorical training.
    Smith proposed that three years should be adequate for “a middling genius with ordinary application” to complete these studies, arguing that in the absence of these traits, “no time will be found sufficient for a college education.”

Choice in the Late-19th Century
    Dr. Charles J. StillÈ, a professor of belles-lettres and English literature who would become the University’s 10th provost, proposed an elective system at Penn in the 1860s. The faculty and trustees approved the plan by January 1867. In its first years, freshmen and sophomores still followed a strict course of study. During their junior and senior years, however, students preparing for a bachelor of arts degree could choose between ancient and modern languages, as well as between science, history and English literature courses. “It is hard to realize, now that self-determination in the choice of studies has gone so far,” Cheyney wrote in 1940, “how revolutionary this disruption of the prescribed curriculum was considered to be.”
    Among the electives listed in Penn’s 1887 course guide were Hebrew, Sanskrit, mineralogy, and “demonstrations of the anatomy of a typical mammal.”
v In Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America, Christopher Lucas recounts how controversial the elective system—growing in popularity —was among the nation’s educators in the late-19th-century. He quotes Bryn Mawr College President Carey Thomas’s lament that, “In many colleges everything that is desirable for a human being to learn … counts toward the bachelor’s degree … [including] ladder work in the gymnasium (why not go upstairs?) … [or] swimming in the tank (why not one’s morning bath?)” With the advent of the elective system, Lucas wrote, “the idea of acquaintance with any fixed body of knowledge, classical or otherwise, began to disappear.”

The 20th Century: Concentration and Distribution
    By 1900-01, the 60 hours (roughly equivalent to credits) needed to graduate were to consist of six hours in foreign languages; six hours in English and English literature; two hours in history; two hours in logic and ethics; two hours in mathematics; and four hours in chemistry and physics.
    Students then had to choose two or three subjects from a wide-ranging list and complete an additional six to nine hours of classes in each of those subjects. The remaining 20 hours needed to graduate could come from electives of their choosing.
    By 1915, students were selecting actual “majors,” consisting of nine units (with one unit equal to an hour of weekly instruction for one year). To
balance out this increasing specialization, Penn, like many other American universities, introduced distributional requirements to provide students, regardless of their major and occupational goals, with a basic grounding in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Over the years the emphasis would shift slightly from one area to the other, and back again.

    In 1950-51, for example, graduation requirements included the following:
Basic group: English—(six semester credits, with each credit equal to an hour of instruction each week per academic term); intermediate study of foreign language (six semester credits); math or logic (six credits).
Distributive group: natural sciences (12 credits, with six credits to come from courses in astronomy, chemistry, geology or physics and six credits to come from botany, psychology or zoology); social sciences (12 credits, with six from economics, political science or sociology, and six from anthropology, history or philosophy); literature and the arts (15 credits).
PE or military training (four credits)
Major requirements (at least 32 credits)
Free electives (37 credits)
    By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the distributional requirements were
relaxed—in keeping with the times—to include fewer courses, with more flexibility, within the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The PE requirement also was dropped, and the number of courses needed to graduate dropped from 40 to 32.

    In 1974-75 the University introduced course clusters, providing a more liberal structure to general education in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Students had the option to choose from three types of study:
Cluster-Minor Program, taking at least three courses with a common “thematic, disciplinary or methodological” bond in each of the two areas distinct from their major.
Major-Plus-Minor Program, studying at least two different areas in depth. The minor, consisting of six to eight courses with “a common intellectual bond,” must be different not only in distributional area but also in mode of thought and methodology.
Three Minors Program, requiring no major but instead a concentration of six to eight courses in each distributional area: humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
    This plan was kept in place until 1987, when the current curriculum was adopted. (See main story for description.)


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