Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Liberal Education Not Promoted in 4-4 Plan

Democritus taught us that change is one of life’s constants, but he did not go so far as to say that all change is good. He also developed the theory of the atom thousands of years before Neils Bohr would prove its existence experimentally, laying the foundations of modern science.

Today, a debate is growing between those who desire to change Georgetown’s established curriculum of five classes per semester to a 4-4 system used at other major universities, and those sober folk, science majors among them, who insist this is not a good idea.

The 4-4 Curriculum Plan calls for students to take four classes per semester, each one worth four credits instead of three. Its advocates say that the plan encourages students to be more selective in choosing their classes and put more effort into research and study than would be possible in a five-class system, yet still devote more time to cultivating a healthy campus culture through extracurricular activities.

The 4-4 plan may work very well at universities where it is already established, such as Cornell and Middlebury College, both of which were represented on campus recently to encourage Georgetown to adopt the plan. But many are the benefits of a Georgetown education that stem directly from its commitment to a five-class system.

Students of Georgetown’s acclaimed School of Foreign Service, for example, know their school owes its acclamation to a strong core curriculum. But they also know how rewarding it is to broaden one’s horizons by taking the occasional elective class in an unrelated discipline. (Ambassador Andrew Steigman will tell you that his favorite class while a student here was in architecture.) The same applies to science majors, especially those on the pre-medical track, and students who choose to double major or pursue multiple minors. The 4-4 plan, if adopted, would reduce the flexibility of the current system that makes such options possible. The plan’s opponents put it succinctly: The 4-4 curriculum encourages pre-professionalism and detracts from liberal learning.

Also, students considering studying abroad during their junior year are often concerned about whether or not they will be able to fulfill core requirements in time for graduation. The five-class system enables students to study in countries where many classes count only as free electives by providing 10 opportunities in senior year to make up courses missed.

The assumption that a 4-4 plan will encourage more serious or in-depth study on the part of students denies that there is such a thing as human, or student, nature. A student whose inclination is to miss all the classes of a general education requirement except exam days will not be motivated to work harder because one class is dropped, even if teachers take the recommended action to increase class length or assign additional reading. Similarly, students who are highly motivated to excel academically will still do so under the five-class system. They will be just as tempted to take an occasional fifth class under the 4-4 plan as they are to take an occasional sixth under the current five-class arrangement.

Likewise, a student with a serious extracurricular commitment (say, editor in chief of this publication, a roughly 40-hour per week job), has the option to drop down to four classes for one semester (Georgetown considers 12 credits to be a full course load, as students attempting late registration discover to their chagrin) and sacrifice a free elective. The beauty of the five-class system is that it enables students to realize their potential to whatever degree they deem appropriate: from slack-jawed laggard to incurable overachiever.

The benefits of a Georgetown education need not be compromised in a 4-4 system of classes if the core curriculums of the various disciplines were altered substantially to accommodate the changeover. But attempts to modify the College core for better or worse have, of late, been futile (consider the abortive Gateway Curriculum plan of the past few years). Part of the problem has been the reluctance of faculty members to make suggestions or attend meetings to improve the existing system.

But the existing system needs constant examination and improvement if it is to serve the needs of a growing and diverse student body. It needs to emphasize a strong foundation in the various disciplines for all students, regardless of major, and provide strong core classes within majors with reasonable room for elective choice. It should allow students with a love of liberal learning to take a broad-based education in the classical tradition, where Introduction to European Civilization or 19th Century British Literature mean just that, and are not thinly veiled attempts to promote ideological agendas. But resolving these problems requires a commitment on the part of Georgetown’s faculty equal to the commitment that would be needed of students to excel under the focused 4-4 Curriculum Plan. It requires an attitude devoted to change – of the good kind.

For What It’s Worth appears every other Tuesday in The Hoya.

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