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to Get the Best
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 objectthe attainment of the high seas
of science and cultivated human thought.
Felix E. Schelling C1881, The Alumni Register (October 1914)
of this over the demise of the Greek requirement.
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
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
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 Peoples 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.
the Universitys archives show, curricular changeand acceptance happens
at a creeping pace. A peek at Penns course guides over the decades,
along with other accounts, reflects shifting priorities in higher education.
Here are some highlights along the way:
records exist for the Universitys earliest curriculum, but in his History
of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940, Edward Potts Cheyney
draws insights from Provost William Smiths The Scheme of a Liberal
Education, published in the Philadelphia Gazette as well as
in the provosts own papers.
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.
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.
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
in the Late-19th Century
Charles J. StillÈ, a professor of belles-lettres and English literature
who would become the Universitys 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
the electives listed in Penns 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 systemgrowing in popularity
was among the nations educators in the late-19th-century. He quotes
Bryn Mawr College President Carey Thomass lament that, In many colleges
everything that is desirable for a human being to learn
the bachelors degree
[including] ladder work in the gymnasium (why
not go upstairs?)
[or] swimming in the tank (why not ones 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.
20th Century: Concentration and Distribution
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.
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.
1915, students were selecting actual majors, consisting of nine units
(with one unit equal to an hour of weekly instruction for one year).
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
1950-51, for example, graduation requirements included the following:
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).
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)
(at least 32 credits)
electives (37 credits)
the late 1960s and early 1970s, the distributional requirements were
relaxedin keeping with the timesto 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.
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
Program, taking at least three courses with a common thematic,
disciplinary or methodological bond in each of the two areas distinct
from their major.
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.
Program, requiring no major but instead a concentration of six to
eight courses in each distributional area: humanities, social sciences
and natural sciences.
plan was kept in place until 1987, when the current curriculum was adopted.
(See main story for description.)
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