March 19, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 12

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    College revises curriculum

    New curriculum retains majority of core requirements, increases electives

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    A new undergraduate curriculum that will increase opportunities for electives while maintaining the University's commitment to general education has been approved by the College Council.

    "This is a curriculum for the 21st century," said Bert Cohler, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and spokesman of the Committee of the College Council. "We are renewing Chicago's tradition of using rigorous general education as a cornerstone, while increasing the richness of elective offerings that our University uniquely provides."

    Under the new curriculum, students entering in 1999 will complete approximately one-third of their courses in integrated Common Core sequences, one-third in their concentration and one-third in free electives. The Core will include six quarters of natural and mathematical sciences, six quarters of humanities and civilizational studies, and three quarters of social sciences. Additionally, students will be expected to demonstrate competency in a foreign language.

    "This is the outgrowth of an exhaustive process," said John Boyer, Dean of the College. "The faculty are passionately committed to providing the best possible liberal education for our students, which is why they have spent three years thinking about the vital issues that informed the construction of this new curriculum.

    "The Chicago Plan -- which is what I personally hope our new curriculum will come to be called -- introduces students to several broad domains of knowledge while explicitly focusing on the intellectual habits of inquiry, analysis and writing," Boyer said.

    The new curriculum concentrates general education courses in the student's first two years as an undergraduate. Currently, many College students spend more than their first two years completing Core requirements -- which, Cohler notes, " makes no pedagogical sense. Juniors and seniors should be doing advanced work. There are few other places in the country where they have the opportunity to hunt for dinosaur bones one week and visit a clinic for chronically mentally ill patients the next."

    Under the new curriculum, Boyer said, "The prospect of graduating seniors taking Core courses will be highly unusual, since that kind of situation amounts to little more than a general education distribution requirement, and we are adamantly opposed to distribution requirements."

    The new curriculum is flexible enough to allow faculty to structure new courses, while maintaining the University tradition of small classes taught by experienced faculty, Cohler said. It is designed to encourage new educational programs, such as the College's global learning initiative, which encourages students to study abroad, and the new Foreign Language Proficiency Certificate program.

    "Innovative teaching will be possible because students will now have greater ability to explore intellectual interests stimulated by their Core courses," Boyer said. "This may mean that students move more quickly to higher levels of learning, including advanced foreign language learning."

    Additionally, general education courses will become more interdisciplinary, integrating work in the humanities and social sciences and work in the biological and physical sciences, Boyer said.

    Cohler said that the College Council, composed of 40 faculty members, will discuss ways current students may be able to take advantage of the new curriculum while maintaining a coherent education across four years.

    The subject of revising the curriculum was broached by Boyer after he became Dean of the College in 1992. The curriculum had last been reviewed in 1983-84. "Ten years is too long between curriculum reviews," Boyer said. "If universities wait too long, they begin to rest on their laurels. A more frequent review stimulates creativity, because it requires all of us to make sure there are not better ways of achieving our objectives."

    Boyer held a series of retreats with faculty from several of the collegiate divisions and then organized a College-wide retreat on the future of the curriculum for more than 120 faculty members in early December 1995. In January 1996 he then formed the College Curriculum group, called the "Friday Group," since it met on Fridays. Composed of the five Collegiate Masters, the seven members of the Committee on the College Council and the eight members of the College Curriculum Committee, the curriculum group arranged question-and-answer sessions and listened to presentations from faculty leaders in Core instruction during the 1996-97 academic year.

    Last spring a drafting committee prepared a proposal that was modified by the Friday Group, leading to the proposal that was introduced to the College Council in June 1997. During the current academic year the Council again debated the reform proposal in six meetings held from January to March, finally voting overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal on March 10.

    "Curricula are dynamic because the faculty is dynamic," said Boyer. "This new curriculum is based on the belief that the professorial faculty have the primary responsibility for designing and teaching our Core curriculum, as well as sustaining first-rate concentration programs and an enhanced program of electives. The new curriculum affirms our basic commitment to a faculty-taught College while providing richer educational opportunities for our students."