It used to be—back in the days when female dorms were guarded as carefully as bank vaults and professors dressed like characters out of Mad Men or Harry Potter—that you had to learn a specific set of facts and ideas to graduate from college. Really, we aren’t kidding. In fact, there used to be mandatory courses with set reading lists that every BA student on campus took, like it or not. Undergraduates typically sat in these classes in freshman or sophomore year, in large lecture halls where full professors (not nervous grad students) taught “surveys” meant to bring people up to speed on subjects they might not have learned enough about in their (widely divergent) high schools.
It’s hard to imagine, but colleges used to insist that students master whole bodies of knowledge about subjects they might not even be interested in, using parts of their brains they hadn’t already developed, learning the basics of disciplines they might not ever use. The theory behind these old-fashioned “core curricula” was that every student ought to be literate concerning the basics of the culture he or she lived in the books that formed its ideas, the ideas that formed its institutions, the institutions that shaped its laws, and the laws that governed the country.
Every BA student, regardless of major, had to conquer these classes to graduate. So you had future ad execs in courses on the American Revolution, aspiring politicians reading Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, psychology majors thumbing through the King James Bible. These were the kinds of classes Bluto and Flounder were cutting in the movie Animal House—and no wonder. New ideas only aggravate a hangover.
In the late 1960s, however, student radicals took over campuses across the country and tore down every “repressive” structure that stood in the way of their doing . . pretty much whatever they wanted. Single-sex colleges and even dorms mostly disappeared; dress codes were stripped away; and core curriculum lists were largely put in the shredder. Instead, you could broaden your mind not by learning specific things about the civilization in which you lived but by dipping your toe into a wide array of classes, broken out into fuzzy “discipline clusters.” So instead of a class in U.S. history, you could study the history of the country your grandparents came from. Rather than reading plays by Shakespeare, you could study the poems of Bob Dylan. Were you at a faith-based college? Well, you could kill off that pesky “religious studies” requirement by studying a religion; pick one that you’re kind of curious about. And so on.
The results of such changes are colleges like the one you’re probably paying $40–$50K per year to attend. History majors can graduate without knowing how or why the United States became independent. English majors can finish without reading a single line of Shakespeare. Political science students can go on to grad school having never read the U.S. Constitution. And students from different majors have very little overlapping knowledge in common, so when they argue over ideas, they’re pretty much speaking in different languages. But hey, at least you never had to read those old, hard books—which at first glance seem kind of boring. We at IR decided to check up on how well the “distributional requirements” are working at five prominent colleges, looking to see how easily you could check off the boxes in five key disciplines. Keep in mind that we’re simply reprinting the actual course descriptions, word for word. We don’t need to make this stuff up.
1. Harvard University: The Literature and Arts B Requirement
“Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee”
Instead of studying Renaissance art, students at Harvard can enroll in this class.
Against the background of radical theories of racial formation and identity politics in America, this course will comparatively explore controversial images of African Americans and Italian Americans in selected films of two of the most important contemporary American filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. On their road to becoming iconic figures in America’s contemporary cinematic and artistic avant-garde, Scorsese and Lee radically transformed received or conventional perceptions of Italian Americans and African Americans in mainstream American film. In this course, we will explore both similar and contrastive styles and approaches by the two filmmakers.
2. Stanford University: The Math Requirement
“The Mathematics of Sports”
More interested in football than science? At Stanford you can kill off the one math class required of nonscience majors this way.
The purpose of this course is to introduce the student to the use of mathematics, statistics, and probability in the analysis of sports performance, sports records, and strategy. Topics include mathematical analysis of the physics of sports and the determinations of optimal strategies. Our objective is for students to use these tools over the duration of the course to develop new diagnostic statistics and strategies for sports.
3.Yale University: The Humanities & Arts Requirement
“U.S. Lesbian and Gay History”
If the Federalist Papers aren’t your idea of a fabulous read, you can skip them (and every other document written by the American Founders) and check off your history box with this lecture course.
Introduction to the social, cultural, and political history of lesbians, gay men, and other socially constituted sexual minorities. Focus on understanding categories of sexuality in relation to shifting normative regimes, primarily in the twentieth century. The emergence of homosexuality and heterosexuality as categories of experience and identity; the changing relationship between homosexuality and transgenderism; the development of diverse lesbian and gay subcultures and their representation in popular culture; religion and sexual science; generational change and everyday life; AIDS; and gay, antigay, feminist, and queer movements.
4. The University of Texas at Austin: The Science Requirement
At UT Austin, you need to take three science classes in the same discipline. That’s pretty demanding. Luckily, one of them can be this course, which at least will give you something cool to look up on YouTube.
Hormones are powerful molecules that not only help shape the development of the body and regulate physiological processes, but they also act on the brain to influence how individuals behave. Not only can hormones influence an individual’s behavior, but the behavioral experience of the individual can in turn affect hormone release. Although males and females produce the same hormones, they produce
them in different amounts and patterns and it is important to be aware of how these different hormones may exert their anatomical or physiological effects.
5.College of the Holy Cross: The Religion Requirement
“Gardens and World Religions”
If you’re enrolled at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and you don’t feel like reading what some dead pope had to say about how you (who are alive!) should try to act, you can skip that and satisfy the college’s one-course theology mandate by pulling out your trowel and taking this class.
A survey of the historical and cultural backgrounds of the major garden traditions of the world associated with religions. This course moves from considerations of human aesthetic and spiritual experience in the natural world to a survey of the major garden traditions associated with the western Mediterranean and Europe: in classical Greece and Rome, Christianity, and Islam. The course then moves to East Asia and classical traditions of China and Japan. Special focus will be given to elements of the campus Japanese Garden Initiative: teahouse gardens and monastic viewing gardens. Field trips to regional gardens will be made. For the final project, students design small virtual contemplative gardens for possible construction at specific campus sites.
Or you could decide to learn something.
If you want a solid humanities education, you might choose instead to create your own core curriculum. We suggest you pick one course from your own school’s catalog in each of the following eight vital topics. Knowing these core facts about our civilization and our country will give you a solid foundation for every other subject you will study. They will also make you seem like some kind of genius to your average fellow student, who’s probably pretty ignorant of such things.
1. Greek and Roman Literature in Translation
2. Ancient Philosophy
3. The Bible (Hebrew and/or New Testament)
4. Christian Thought before 1500
5. Early Modern Political Philosophy
7. American History before 1865
8. Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History
Do you know of other examples of Campus Chaos? Let us know! Send us news about the latest outrages on your campus—courses, events, protests, or anything else—at firstname.lastname@example.org.