The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993

Sep 30, 1996 |  NAS

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The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993

Sep 30, 1996 | 


For the greater part of the twentieth century, America's leading colleges and universities were strongly committed to providing undergraduates with a broad and rigorous exposure to major areas of knowledge. During the last thirty years this commitment largely vanished, according to a detailed study of fifty prestigious institutions.

Executive Summary

The Hypothesis

In undertaking its study, the NAS hypothesized that while general education requirements had undergone a gradual loosening over the course of the century, since the mid-1960s they had, to a very large extent, dissolved. The NAS further postulated that this radical transformation, usually downplayed by college administrators and faculty, had involved a purging from the curriculum of many of the required basic survey courses that used to familiarize students with a broad range of subjects in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

The Method

In order to test these hypotheses, the NAS engaged in a close examination of general education requirements for the bachelor of arts degree at the fifty top-ranked schools listed in the highly respected and widely circulated U.S. News and World Report's "America's Best Colleges." (*The study was based on the listing published in October 1989.)

The NAS selected prestigious institutions because these schools have traditionally graduated a large proportion of America's leaders in government, law, business, science, and the arts, and thus possess an influence that extends throughout American society. The NAS's choice was also influenced by the fact that these institutions represent the vanguard of American higher education, setting examples for less distinguished colleges and universities which often play follow the leader in curricular as well as other matters.

Using the official course catalogues of each institution, the study compared data from four years, three of which were pivotal in the socio-economic history of the century and the country. The first, 1914, marked the outbreak of World War I and the cultural end of the nineteenth century. The second, 1939, signaled the beginning of World War II and the death of American isolationism. The third, 1964, stood at the beginning of the massive cultural upheaval associated with the sixties, and the beginning of the surge of campus protests that so powerfully altered the character of American academic life. The fourth year, 1993, was simply the last for which we could examine the data.

The yardsticks by which the NAS measured the quality of general education requirements were three: structure, content, and rigor.

Structure: The Findings

The more an institution limits the choices among courses that students can make in fulfilling their general education requirement, the more that requirement can be said to have been structured. The extent to which an institution structures its general education programs demonstrates the extent to which it is willing to establish clear educational priorities, rather than leaving these to be determined by the students themselves.

Overall, the NAS found that highly structured course requirements were the norm in 1914, 1939, and 1964, but that these had given way to a radically more latitudinarian approach by 1993. (Moreover, it also found that the average percentage of the overall graduation requirement composed by general education requirements dropped from 55 percent in 1914, to 46 percent in 1964, to 33 percent in 1993.) Specifically the findings include:

  • Fewer Mandatory Courses: The de-emphasis of a common core of knowledge is illustrated by a precipitous drop in the number of basic courses that students were required to take. The average number of these mandatory courses fell from 9.9 in 1914, to 6.9 in 1964, to 2.5 in 1993.
  • Fewer Clusters: Without mandating a particular course, institutions can still limit choice by requiring students to choose one or several basic survey courses from among a small set. Limiting the count to "course clusters" in which the ratio between the courses to be taken and those available was one to six or less, the study found such clusters commonplace until 1964 but virtually absent from the general education requirements after that date.
  • Fewer Courses with Prerequisites: Another important method of imposing constraint on course choice involves the use of prerequisites—that is preliminary requirements for enrollment in specific courses, usually the completion of another preparatory course. The data reveal that the total number of undergraduate courses not possessing prerequisites rose from an average of 23 per institution in 1914, to 127 per institution by 1964, to 582 per institution by 1993.
  • Longer Completion Time: The NAS found that between 1939 and 1993 a decreasing number of institutions set time requirements on the completion of their general education requirements (a stipulation usually designed to insure that introductions to various areas of study are sampled prior to the choice of a specialized major). Thus, while in 1964, 42 percent of the institutions required that general education be completed during the first two years of undergraduate education, by 1993 only 26 percent did so.

Content: The Findings

As already noted, the extent to which general education requirements are structured reflects an institution’s willingness to set priorities. But even when priorities are set it is still vital to know their specific content in order to assess the adequacy of the education being received. Ideally, the content of the general education curriculum should ensure that students acquire both the body of knowledge and the intellectual skills necessary for personal cultivation and the satisfactory discharge of their obligations of citizenship. To accomplish both these ends, the NAS reasoned, students should master the fundamentals of the history of their civilization, command the basic principles and methodology of the natural sciences and mathematics, be conversant with at least one foreign language, acquire a firm understanding of the cultural underpinnings of their civilization through a broad exposure to its literary, philosophic, and artistic traditions, and be able to use the English language as a medium of personal communication.

If there is agreement about the importance of a broad exposure to these areas of knowledge and the attainment of these skills, an examination of the changing content of general education requirements at our elite colleges and universities will show how well they have been doing their jobs. In this regard, the principal findings of the study are:

  • English Composition: The percentage of institutions with composition requirements administered by English departments slipped from 98 percent in 1914, to 86 percent in 1964, and to 36 percent in 1993. By contrast, "intensive writing courses" taught in a wide variety of departments, unknown in 1914 and 1939, had replaced traditional composition courses at 50 percent of the institutions by 1993.
  • Foreign Languages: Until 1964, 90 percent or more of the institutions studied had mandatory foreign language requirements. By 1993, however, slightly less than two–thirds retained such requirements and they accounted for a diminished percentage of the overall baccalaureate requirement. On the plus side, the average number of foreign languages offered increased substantially.
  • History: The incidence of specific history requirements fluctuated over the course of the century, but between 1964 and 1993 the percentage of institutions possessing them dropped from 38 to 12 percent. The percentage of the credits needed to graduate comprised by the credits to be taken in history (i.e., the history requirement's "credit weight") fell from an average of 5.8 percent in 1964 to 3.4 percent in 1993. Furthermore, while in 1964 mandatory history courses or history courses as part of clusters were found at 60 percent of the institutions studied, by 1993 they were found at only 2 percent.
  • Literature: Between 1914 and 1964 the percentage of institutions with literature requirements fell from 57 to 38 percent; in 1993 only 14 percent retained such requirements. Furthermore, the credit weight of such requirements fell from an average of 4.3 percent in 1964 to 3.3 percent in 1993. While mandatory literature courses or literature courses as part of clusters were found at 75 percent of the institutions studied in 1914 and at just above 50 percent in 1939 and 1964, by 1993 they were found at none.
  • Philosophy: 43 percent of the schools studied had philosophy requirements in 1914. This figure dropped to 18 percent in 1964, and to 10 percent in 1993. Furthermore, the average credit weight of such requirements declined from 5.4 percent in 1964 to 3.7 percent in 1993. While mandatory philosophy courses or philosophy courses as part of clusters were found at 76 percent of the institutions studied in 1914, and at 46 percent in both 1939 and 1964, by 1993 they were found at only 4 percent.
  • Social Science: Mandatory courses in specific social science subjects (i.e., economics, political science, sociology, and psychology) were never found at more than a minority of the institutions we studied. However, in 1914, 1939, and 1964 the combination of mandatory social science courses and those grouped in clusters were found at a majority of the institutions in the sample. By 1993 both mandatory social science courses and those grouped in clusters had vanished.
  • Natural Sciences: 86 percent of the institutions studied had requirements in the physical and biological sciences in 1914, a figure that had dropped to 72 percent by 1939, rose again to 90 percent by 1964, and then plummeted to 34 percent by 1993. The average credit weight of natural science requirements declined from 11.5 percent in 1914, to 8.3 percent in 1964 to 5.8 percent in 1993.
  • Mathematics: 82 percent of the institutions studied had traditional mathematics requirements in 1914, 36 percent in 1964, and 12 percent in 1993. (In 1993, another 32 percent of the institutions examined allowed generally less demanding "quantitative" courses taught outside the mathematics department to be taken in lieu of regular mathematics courses.) The average credit weight of mathematics requirements declined from 6.5 percent in 1914, to 5.8 percent in 1964, and to 5.1 percent in 1993.
  • Distribution Requirements: We defined a distribution requirement as a curricular category in which the student was asked to choose among courses in three or more distinct subject areas. In 1914, only 12 percent of the institutions examined had humanities or social science distribution requirements. In 1993, 80 percent had them in the humanities and 88 percent in the social sciences. With respect to the amount of choice within distribution requirements the changes that occurred between 1964 and 1993 were especially dramatic. In 1964, for example, only an average of 20.9 courses in humanities distributions were without prerequisites and thus available to any student. By 1993 this figure had risen to 126.7. The comparable figures in the social sciences were 13.5 in 1964 and 92.8 in 1993.

Rigor: The Findings

In addition to determining changes in institutional priorities and the content of those priorities, the study sought answers to the question: How intellectually challenging are general education requirements today compared to those of the past? Its findings indicate that today's students at leading colleges and universities are not held to the same exacting standards that once prevailed.

  • Second-Tier Composition Courses: Except for foreign students, special composition courses set aside for less prepared students did not exist. In 1939 one school had such a course (titled "Sub–Freshman English") and, in 1964, three (6 percent) did. By 1993, however, such English courses were in place at thirty-five (70 percent) of these "elite" schools. Moreover, while none of these courses were offered for credit in 1964, in 1993, 89 percent were. (The word "remedial" was, however, almost never used in the catalogue descriptions of these courses).
    Exemptions: The possibility of gaining exemption from general education requirements in English composition, foreign languages, mathematics, and the natural sciences all increased sharply during the period studied, albeit at different rates. Opportunities for exemptions increased substantially after 1964.
    Stratification within Natural Science and Mathematics Requirements: In the hard sciences and mathematics, the incidence of separate introductory courses designed for non-science and non-mathematics majors increased over the course of the century. (Such courses were usually less rigorous than those for science and mathematics majors.) In 1914, none of the schools with natural science or mathematics requirements offered special courses for non-majors; by 1964, however, 40 percent of schools offered non-major courses as a means of fulfilling the natural science requirement, and 12 percent offered similar non-major courses in mathematics. By 1993, 74 percent offered non-major science options and 38 percent non-major mathematics options. (In examining the incidence of non-major science and mathematics course options we looked not only at institutions which had specific science and mathematics requirements, but also at those which allowed students to choose between taking a science or a math course. )
  • Laboratory Requirements: In 1914, 1939, and 1964 the percentage of institutions with natural science requirements that also demanded some laboratory work hovered between 74 and 84 percent. By 1993, however, this figure had fallen to 30 percent.
    Theses and Examinations: More than 50 percent of the schools in 1939 and 1964 demanded a thesis or comprehensive examination as a requirement for all students receiving a baccalaureate in arts degree. By 1993, only 12 percent did so.
    Length of Academic Year: The amount of time students spend in classes has undergone a substantial decline since 1914, and again, most sharply since 1964. In 1914 classes were in session an average of 204 days from the beginning of the Fall semester or quarter to the end of Spring semester or quarter. In 1939, this number was 195, and in 1964, 191. In 1993, the average number of classroom days had fallen to only 156 (Not all catalogues recorded data about the number of days classes were in session: 34 did so in 1914, 43 in 1939, 46 in 1964, and 49 in 1993. Data on the length of classroom hours were found in 46 catalogues in 1914, 37 in 1939, 23 in 1964, and 31 in 1993.)
    Regular Scheduled Saturday Classes: In 1914, 98 percent of the institutions providing weekly class schedules in their catalogues listed classes on Saturday mornings. In 1939 such classes were listed in 92 percent of the catalogues of these institutions, in 1964 in 79 percent, and in 1993 in only 6 percent.  (Data on Saturday classes were found in 40 catalogues in 1914, 48 in 1939, 43 in 1964, and 49 in 1993.)



The prevalent unwillingness to set priorities within general education programs, together with the growing disinclination to insist on rigorous standards for completing them, suggest that undergraduate general education has become substantially devalued as an institutional objective. It also indicates that most institutions are no longer seriously committed to ensuring that their students are exposed to broad surveys of basic subject matter.

With respect to the structure of the curriculum, it is, of course, possible for a school to opt for a free choice among its courses as a matter of philosophy, reflecting the deliberate judgment that the type of student it enrolls will generally be able to profit from having unrestricted options. Programmatic pluralism is one of the greatest strengths of American higher education and it is important that those students who can benefit from the widest possibilities of choice have colleges and universities where such exist. Several of the institutions covered by our study (those that were explicit about not having specific requirements) may well have decided to provide such choices as a matter of deliberate educational judgment.

But the large majority have chosen instead to disguise virtually unrestricted options behind a facade of structure afforded by what are now generally called "distribution requirements." While distribution requirements demand that a student spread his or her course selections among groupings carrying labels like "the humanities," "the social sciences," and "the natural sciences," the courses contained within these groupings--as we have seen--are in fact so numerous and diverse as to make it nearly impossible to predict what subjects the recipient of a baccalaureate will end up taking or to conclude that adequate guidance is actually being given to students. The presence of distribution requirements strongly suggests that most institutions recognize that their students expect and need real guidance in attaining a broad based education. However, when examined closely these distribution requirements represent, in everything but name, a system of virtually unrestricted student choice.

A quite plausible argument can be made that general education has become a residual category of American academic life, given attention only to the extent that more important institutional objectives have already been secured. After all, the one clear virtue of the structureless curriculum is that it impedes little else. Having fewer challenging requirements, for instance, is likely to improve the retention of students, an especially important objective in an oversaturated higher education market. In addition, administrators can more easily avoid troubling the academic waters by abdicating judgment on the merits of the curricular claims of rival departments than by rendering it. Finally, in the absence of required survey courses, professors can divert less time from their specialized research.

Perhaps this is too cynical a view. To a considerable extent the structured curriculum was dashed to pieces during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the rage in higher education was a radical libertarianism based on notions of "relevance" and the assumption that a special insight belonged to youth. Idealism, therefore, has also played its role. But the outcome has certainly proved compatible with a variety of basic professional and institutional objectives that have steadily been gaining in importance since at least mid century.

Earlier in the century colleges and universities were generally much smaller and more preoccupied with teaching than is the case today. Consequently, they were more apt to possess a shared sense of pedagogical mission and a more unified system of governance than do their contemporary counterparts. This made it far easier for them to construct an integrated and sometimes unique approach to general education.

The rise of the research university has been an immense boon for the advancement of knowledge, and the democratization of higher education has, for many at least, created vast opportunities for personal improvement and upward mobility. But both have led--for reasons of increased size and internal specialization--to a situation in which academic institutions are no longer as constitutionally well equipped as were their predecessors to define a unified vision of the essentials of undergraduate general education. The efforts most of them still make, however, to disguise this fact creates the decided impression that they are uncomfortably aware that they have abandoned a major part of their perceived responsibilities.

Their discomfort is legitimate, because if they can no longer define educational essentials--and, in particular, no longer guarantee that students acquire a basic knowledge of their civilization and its heritage--we are in danger of losing the common frame of cultural reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society.

Our data suggest that this danger is quite real. They reveal that during the last eighty years the general education programs of most of our best institutions have ceased to demand that students become familiar with the basic facts of their country's history, political and economic systems, philosophic traditions, and literary and artistic legacies which were once conveyed through mandated and preferred survey courses. Nor do they, as thoroughly as they did for most of the earlier part of the century, require that students familiarize themselves with the natural sciences and mathematics. And, particularly surprising, especially in a period when so much attention is given to the benefits of "multiculturalism," the emphasis on foreign language training has also been significantly diminished.

Our liberal democratic society, to say nothing of our comfort and affluence, hardly represents the human norm, either in times past or with respect to most of the world today. Unless our citizens understand the ideas, practices, and circumstances that have produced this exceptional combination of freedom and prosperity, one wonders if the norm will not eventually reassert itself. It has been said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but, without knowledge, vigilance is blind.

In decrying the extent to which general education curricula have ceased to be vehicles for conveying the substance of our history, institutions, and traditions, we are not seeking to re-create some academic “Golden Age,” much less return to a curriculum geared to the instruction of a small social elite. The world has changed greatly since 1914, and, happily, higher education is no longer the preserve of the chosen few. This, of necessity, must be reflected in a changed curriculum. Still, there is, if anything, even greater need for an education that can anchor students in the essentials of their heritage than there was in times past. This is so not only because liberal societies face a host of new and difficult social, intellectual, and technological challenges but also because more people participate in their decision-making processes than was ever the case in the past. Average citizens must therefore know more, not less, than they did at the beginning of the century. To ensure that they do, it is imperative that there be a significant recovery of civic responsibility among our colleges and universities.

It is of special importance that such a recovery take place among the institutions examined here, for it is within their walls that are nurtured not only America’s future citizens but its leaders as well. How this can be achieved in the necessarily much altered context of the modern academy raises an immensely complicated set of questions whose answers lie beyond the scope of this study. But answers must be found if our country is not to end up paying an extraordinarily high price.

The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993 (PDF)



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Gary Galbraith

| April 03, 2016 - 1:00 PM

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