|What Does It Mean to be Liberally Educated? Davidson Revises Distribution Requirements
July 18, 2011
Contact: Stacey Schmeidel, 704/894-2798
What does it mean to be a liberally educated person? The answer to that question is changing. For the first time in more than 20 years, Davidson has changed its distribution requirements.
Clark Ross, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, said the change is a result of the college's strategic plan, begun in 2007 under the leadership of former President Tom Ross. "These new requirements have been developed over the course of a years-long discussion, with input from the vast majority of the faculty," he noted. "This new curriculum will allow the college to retain its strong commitment to existing majors while, at the same time, providing our students with the skills and knowledge they need to lead responsibly in a changing world."
The new requirements, which will be implemented in the fall of 2012 and be in effect for the Class of 2016 and beyond, require students to take one course from each of the following categories: Historical Thought; Literary Studies, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric; Mathematical and Quantitative Thought; Natural Science; Philosophical and Religious Perspectives; Social-Scientific Thought; Visual and Performing Arts; and Liberal Studies. (These eight courses must come from at least seven different departments or programs.) Other graduation requirements remained unchanged; students must still take a course in each of these categories: Cultural Diversity, Foreign Language, and Writing 101.
The faculty will spend the next academic year determining which courses satisfy which requirements, Ross said. This information will be posted on the college's Web site before students choose courses for the fall of 2012.
The college's current system has 10 requirements, spread across disciplines. This system has served the college for many years-but after a long, systematic review, a 15--member team of faculty, students and staff who were asked to assess the requirements as part of the strategic plan felt it was time for a change.
In recommending this update, the Graduation Requirements Team noted that two thirds of Davidson's faculty were hired after the existing requirements were put into place. These faculty hadn't had an opportunity to shape the requirements that their students were trying to meet.
The new guidelines are also more inclusive. In the decades since the existing requirements were established, many disciplines have evolved, and other new disciplines--like Environmental Studies and Latin American Studies--have been established. The new distribution requirements more accurately capture these modified and new disciplines, which don't always fit neatly into the current requirements.
"Distribution requirements have long been Davidson's means to ensure that students explore the wide, and wonderful, variety of human thought and expression, and make an informed choice of a major," said John Swallow, chair of the Graduation Requirements Team. "Over time, the 1987 requirements, based on then-existing departments, came to hold less coherence for both students and faculty advisers, and we faced good questions about why one course satisfied a requirement, while another did not. The new requirements, in their structure and careful explanation, manifest our goals anew-and provide our students, who arrive at Davidson with interests and future plans as wide-ranging as ever before, broad opportunities to meet these goals through Davidson's increasingly diverse offerings."
Graduation requirements have been discussed for many years at Davidson, mostly informally and without widespread review--but the curriculum is central to students' academic experience, and systematic changes like the ones approved this year do not happen without a great deal of thought. Before making its recommendation, the Graduation Requirements Team looked hard at Davidson's needs, and at the changing demands of the world beyond the college. The team examined distribution requirements at Davidson's peer institutions, and hosted several open discussions with students, as well as a meeting with the Student Government Association. The team met with almost all of Davidson's faculty, in small- and large-group discussions.
Before getting into the detail of possible revisions, the Graduation Requirements Team asked all faculty members and students to think at a high level about what the requirements were intended to accomplish. The team then presented alternate versions of a revised system of distribution requirements. After receiving feedback on these versions, the team made additional changes, and in April 2011 presented a recommendation to then-President John Kuykendall. The president sent the recommendation through the college's normal process to the Educational Policy Committee, which approved it and sent it to the faculty. At an April meeting, more than 80 percent of the faculty voted to approve the revised requirements.
Work remains to be done. The faculty will begin sorting courses into categories over the next several months, and the Educational Policy Committee will consider the role of AP and other pre-matriculation credits in the new system. Once these decisions are made, information will be posted to the college's Web site, so that incoming students are up to date on the details of the new requirements.
Ross offered praise to the many faculty, students and staff who were instrumental in the development of the new requirements, especially associate deans Verna Case and Pat Sellers and Kimbrough Professor of Mathematics John Swallow. "Without the work of these individuals, as well as the rest of the strategic planning team, we could not have accomplished this important task," Ross said.
Billy Hackenson '13, one of the two students who served on the Graduation Requirements Team, is excited about what has been accomplished. "The current system [of distribution requirements] has been in place longer than I've been alive," said Billy Hackenson ‘13, told The Davidsonian. "I'm confident that the new proposal will allow us to view these new requirements as opportunities, rather than obligations."
Members of the Graduation Requirements Team were Vivien Dietz, associate professor of history; Billy Hackenson '13; Cindy Hauser, associate professor of chemistry; Van Hillard, director of the College Writing Program and associate professor of rhetoric; Cynthia Lewis, the Charles A. Dana Professor of English; Greta Munger, professor of psychology; Sarah Phillips, general counsel and special assistant to the president; Hannah Pommersheim '11; Stacey Riemer, associate dean of students and director of civic engagement; Shelley Rigger, Brown Professor of Political Science; Samuel Sanchez-Sanchez, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Spanish; Pat Sellers, associate dean for curriculum and professor of political science; Jennifer Stasack, professor and chair of music; John Swallow, the J.T. Kimbrough Professor of Mathematics; and Dave Wessner, associate professor of biology.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.