The Liberal Arts Curriculum

In the modern liberal arts, the sciences set the pattern and pose energizing challenges for the other disciplines. The entry of the sciences into the college curriculum a little over a century ago dramatically transformed and revitalized undergraduate education. Today, in part because the sciences intimidate most who are not engaged in them, their centrality is less well appreciated. Properly taught as fields of inquiry, of methodical, collaborative exploration and discovery- they catalyze the liberal arts across the breadth of its fields and focal concerns.

Before the Civil War, the curriculum of every American college (there were as yet no universities) was comprised of a series of studies uniformly prescribed by year. Latin, Greek and mathematics figured most prominently in this fixed curriculum. Instruction consisted of several hours of recitations each morning of rote recital of material from assigned texts, followed by exercises in elocution and disputation in the afternoon. The explicit rationale for this education was one of developing mental faculties, with the aim of strengthening the capabilities of the mind through something like mental calisthenics.

What little science was accorded a place in this curriculum (natural history and natural philosophy) was descriptive and taxonomic, and largely taught in the same stultifying manner. Most active science was conducted outside institutions of higher education in independent, largely amateur, laboratories and local societies of natural history and of arts and sciences.

Over the course of the 19th century, the sciences became organized as distinct disciplines, sustained research became more widespread, and the sciences came to be more essential to advances in technology and industrial growth. Concomitantly, these disciplines insisted on a more substantial place in the college curriculum. At first they were accorded a separate and secondary one. Many colleges began offering a "scientific" course of study, equally prescribed and parallel to the long-standing "classical" course. Others created separate institutions such as the Sheffield School at Yale and the Lawrence School at Harvard. These scientific courses tended to employ the same manner of instruction, but lectures soon began to replace recitations because textbooks could not keep up with the pace of discovery. Increasingly students were drawn into the laboratory, into hands-on involvement with the processes of experimentation and discovery.

With the sciences very much in the lead, a new liberal arts curriculum took shape late in the nineteenth century, one organized around two dozen or so distinct disciplines, with a wide range of elective choice for students within these fields, requirements for core or common learning to insure a broad base, and requirements (generally a major) for study in depth in some field. The sciences had achieved a secure place in all three components: core, major, and electives.

"We face change on many fronts, and change characteristically engenders both opportunity and uncertainty. The end of the Cold War has transformed international relations and security needs. Highly competitive economies have emerged in Europe and Asia, putting new stresses on our private sector and on employment. The ongoing information revolution both enables and demands new ways of doing business. During the 1980s, our federal budget deficit grew rapidly, constraining crucial investments for the future. Our population diversity has increased, yielding new opportunities to build on a traditional American strength. Health and environmental responsibility present increasingly complex challenges, and the literacy standards for a productive and fulfilling role in twenty-first century society are expanding beyond the traditional "three R's" into science and technology.

As our institutions anticipate, manage, and respond to change, we must continue to focus on the enduring core elements of our national interest: the health, prosperity, security, environmental responsibility, and quality of life of all our citizens…improved science and mathematics education is now recognized as a strategic imperative for our individual and collective futures."

-Science in the National Interest. Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Executive Office of the White House, 1994.