Curriculum Changes in American Higher Education

provost-dan-howardI am currently reading Roger L. Geiger’s “The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II.”  The book has caused me to reflect on many things, not the least of which are the remarkable changes that have taken place in the curriculum of American higher education since the founding of Harvard College, in 1636, to the present.
The early colonial colleges – Harvard, Yale, William and Mary – focused on classical languages (Latin and Greek), philosophy, and literature.  There was a smattering of geometry, astronomy, physics, and botany, but the focus of higher education was training the clergy, demonstrating that Christianity is true, and producing men (women were largely excluded from higher education) with the discipline of mind necessary to be leaders of society.  Courses of study were rigidly set and students marched as a cohort through the curriculum.
By the mid-1700s science had become a fixture in the curriculum, but it was not until the rise of military schools (e.g., West Point and Virginia Military Institute) and the land grant colleges in the 19th century that more practical subjects, such as engineering and agriculture, became part of the curriculum. 
The modern American university curriculum, with a focus on academic disciplines and student choice of courses, did not emerge until the end of the 19th century.  Although this model has served us well for more than 100 years, the increase in number and complexity of course offerings at universities, the ballooning cost of higher education, and the importance of degree attainment for employment and career advancement are causing many universities, including NMSU and its associated community colleges, to re-think student choice and provide more prescriptive guidance in the form of meta-majors, degree plans, and learning communities.  The aim is to cut down on student meandering and help more students achieve their goal – a degree. 
Few people long for a return to the days when all students moved lock step through a college curriculum. It is important that students have some flexibility in exploring disciplines and considering degree and career possibilities that were beyond their imagining before entering higher education.  But, guided exploration is likely to be more valuable than unguided wandering.  As we move toward more prescriptive degree pathways and stronger guidance for our students, it will be incumbent on advisors, navigators, and faculty members to balance guidance with careful listening so that students do not feel that they are mere bystanders in the choice of courses that come to comprise their degree programs. 

With all best wishes,


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