NEIL B. WEISSMAN,
DEAN OF THE COLLEGE AND
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY
During the 2014-15 academic year, the Academic Program & Standards Committee (APSC) led a broad discussion of Dickinson’s graduation requirements. In May, the faculty approved significant changes in our general education expectations — certainly the most important academic development in 2015.
Immediate, practical considerations played a role. APSC was wrestling with the challenge of sustaining a very intensive and atypical science requirement of two laboratory courses at the same time that we are enrolling a record number of science majors. Yet the new requirements also reflect the long-term (and creative) evolution of Dickinson’s academic program. Many alumni will recall the traditional curriculum centered on discipline-based majors and general education requirements including three courses each in the divisions of humanities, social sciences and natural and physical sciences. Over time new developments challenged that structure. Examples include the rise of interdisciplinary majors (now enrolling nearly half our students) and the extraordinary expansion of opportunities for study abroad, internships and research. As a consequence, an earlier curricular reform made room for new possibilities by reducing divisional requirements to two each. This year’s vote carried the process further, limiting divisional requirements in social science and laboratory science to one each.
APSC’s rationale for change is worth citing:
The academic program at Dickinson can be envisioned in terms of three dimensions. The first is composed of elements infused across the curriculum … skills, such as critical thinking, and pedagogical approaches, such as active learning or interdisciplinary work. The second dimension is constituted by an enviable set of majors, certificates, minors, off-campus study options, and research and internship opportunities. These offerings are the product of a creative faculty, which has the freedom and support to innovate. … In encountering these first two dimensions of the curriculum, students enjoy independence to craft individual educational programs. They are encouraged to find their own voices and to develop a sense of purpose as learners and citizens. The ability to follow their own interests enhances students’ intellectual curiosity and engagement, builds capacity for lifelong learning and inculcates a sense of accountability for decisions.
Responding to these richly varied and still expanding opportunities, the faculty loosened the third dimension of the academic program, general education requirements.
As the requirements were reduced, they were also revitalized. Recognizing the importance of aesthetic experience, we redefined the existing two-course expectation in the humanities to one in literature, philosophy or religion and the other in the arts. Acknowledging the emergence of sustainability as a defining dimension of our educational program, we added a requirement in that field as well.
I should add that our process matched the positive outcome. The most oft-repeated quote about program reform is, “Changing a college curriculum is like moving a graveyard.” While debate here was vigorous, the changes were approved and have been implemented readily. As APSC aptly reported, “Dickinson has achieved what most institutions seek and few achieve — a distinctive academic program that honestly reflects real strengths of our faculty and curriculum.”