Common Curriculum Needs to Go
story | Terence Anthony Wang, Arts Editor
photo | Rachel Juay
As with most grand ideas, Yale-NUS College’s Common Curriculum started out with a noble cause. It aspired to “draw on the strength of the liberal arts tradition while addressing the needs of the current century”, providing a “range of skills and modes of inquiry”. They are lofty ideals, particularly well-suited to a brave new institution seeking to disrupt the status quo of education in Southeast Asia. Like all lofty ideals, however, the Common Curriculum has several acute flaws, flaws which arguably require a complete rethink of the system as it stands today.
Every freshmen year, there is an elephant in the classroom that everyone loves to discuss or even rant about, but not actually address: YCC 1131, better known as Scientific Inquiry (SI). A staple of the common curriculum since Yale-NUS’s inception, this module has a turbulent history. It has seen perhaps the highest number of changes and revisions compared to any other Common Curriculum module, the latest being a removal of all other topics to focus on evolution and even a last-minute switch to replace the final debates with a graded exam. One would assume that these changes were made to improve the SI curriculum and make it a better fit for the Yale-NUS student body, but they in fact reflect the biggest problem about not just SI, but the Common Curriculum in general: it is nearly impossible to please everyone. However, pleasing everyone is what the Common Curriculum continues to try doing, because it needs to. Run a syllabus that pleases the majority of the population and you will still have a disgruntled minority unhappy at their classes. Take SI again, for instance: make the content more “science-y”, i.e. technical as some have been demanding, and it further alienates those with little academic background in the sciences; do the opposite, and students already disappointed with the lack of technical content become even more dissatisfied. The same could be said for most of the courses, really: if Literature and Humanities (LH) was geared further towards those who have taken related subjects in high school, it would put some at an even greater disadvantage. Such is the nature of anything compulsory, not least when the Common Curriculum affects not only what we learn, but the grades we carry with us into graduation and beyond.
One also cannot escape the fact that ultimately the combination of courses for the Common Curriculum is designated arbitrarily. Why are there only two science courses? Only one mathematics course? Why are the humanities, represented by LH as well as Philosophy and Political Thought (PPT), deemed so important that they get a total of four modules, stretching across two semesters? There are surely justifications for each of these numbers, but there are surely also good arguments for (for example) placing a higher emphasis on mathematics, and I say this as someone primarily interested in the humanities. The point here is that there are just as many ways to argue for a different set of modules in the Common Curriculum, meaning the final combination is one that is not so much an objective “best” choice but more of a subjective decision. By itself, this might not sound too problematic, but it creates a situation where the curriculum fulfils some students’ academic interests more than others, even if purely by chance.
How do we solve this then? One could try what the Yale-NUS faculty has been trying for the past few years, namely continue to tweak and modify the curriculum to address its shortcomings. Alternatively, one could embrace a more radical solution and recognize that most, if not all of the aforementioned problems come down to the ‘common’ aspect of the Common Curriculum. By forcing its entire student body to study the same syllabus, Yale-NUS College is essentially turning a blind eye to the – often substantial – differences between individuals. The goal here is clear: make everyone start off with a broad and shared foundation of knowledge which they can take into their specific fields in the future. An admirable goal, if not for the fact that with a limited number of modules, it is impossible for the Curriculum to “play fair” to all strengths, thus inevitably leaving some with a greater advantage than others. It also shuns the independence of students, most of whom are already adults, of almost one third their own learning journey (in terms of course credits).
It is important to not conflate the problems of the Common Curriculum with problems of liberal arts in general. There is nothing wrong with the Common Curriculum’s courses themselves, nor do I believe there is an issue with getting us students to tread out of our comfort zones and attempt unfamiliar subjects. On the contrary, the courses are largely excellent, and the objective is a good one. But I firmly believe that it is possible to accomplish these things without forcing the same modules on all students.
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Other top liberal arts colleges may provide examples for us to follow. Some models, like Amherst College’s “open curriculum” which has students “choos[ing] the courses that matter most to them” may not be the best fit due to Yale-NUS’s desire to be “multi-disciplinary”; Wellesley College, on the other hand, has “distribution requirements” that ensure students choose courses covering the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. This appears to be a good way of balancing the need for a multidisciplinary education and at the same time giving students the agency to pick courses that still align to their interests.
Regardless of which model suits us best, including others beyond the ones mentioned, the continued need to “fix” the Common Curriculum is symptomatic of a system that has more deeply-rooted problems at its core. Difficult as it may be, a complete overhaul of the Curriculum should be done if there are better alternatives, especially given the College’s relative infancy. If we are to think ourselves bold in embarking on unchartered territory, we should also be courageous enough to look back and see where we’ve gone wrong.
Click here for an alternative view on why the common curriculum should stay.
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