One of the things that clouds mutual understanding of higher education systems across the Atlantic is the nature of the Arts curriculum. And in particular, the degree to which they actually have them in Europe, and don’t over here.
When students enroll in a higher education program in Europe, they have a pretty good idea of the classes they’ll be taking for the next three years. Electives are rare; when you enter a program, the required classes are in large part already laid out. Departments simply don’t think very much in terms of individual courses – they think in terms of whole programs, and share the teaching duties required to get students through the necessary sequence of courses.
If you really want to confuse a European-trained prof just starting her/his career in Canada, ask: “what courses do you want to teach?” This is bewildering to them, as they assume there is a set curriculum, and they’re there to teach part of it. As often as not, they will answer: “shouldn’t you be telling me what courses to teach”? But over here, the right to design your own courses, and have absolute sovereignty over what happens within those courses, is the very definition of academic freedom.
And it’s not just professors who have freedom. Students do too, in that they can choose their courses to an extent absolutely unknown in Europe. Basically, we have a smorgasbord approach to Arts and Sciences (more the former than the latter) – take a bunch of courses that add up to X credits in this area, and we’ll hand you a degree. This has huge advantages in that it makes programs flexible and infinitely customizable. It has a disadvantage in that it’s costly and sacrifices an awful lot of – what most people would call – curricular consistency.
So why do we do this? Because of Harvard. Go back to the 1870s, when German universities were the envy of the world. The top American schools were trying to figure out what was so great about them – and one of the things they found really useful was this idea called “academic freedom”. But at Harvard, they thought they would go one better: they wouldn’t just give it to profs, they’d give it to students, too. This was the birth of the elective system. And because Harvard did it, it had to be right, so eventually everyone else did it too.
There was a brief attempt at some of the big eastern colleges to try and put a more standard curriculum in place after World War II, so as to train their budding elites for the global leadership roles they were expected to assume. It was meant to be a kind of Great Books/Western Civ curriculum, but profs basically circumvented these attempts by arguing for what amounted to a system of credit “baskets”. Where the university wanted a single course on “drama and film in modern communication” (say), profs argued for giving students a choice between four or five courses on roughly that theme. Thus, the institution could require students to take a drama/film credit, but the profs could continue to teach specialist courses on Norwegian Noir rather than suffer the indignity of having to teach a survey course (not that they made their case this way – “student choice” was the rallying call, natch).
Canadian universities absorbed almost none of this before WWII – until then, our universities were much closer to the European model. But afterwards, with the need to get our students into American graduate schools, and so many American professors being hired thereafter (where else could we find so many qualified people to teach our burgeoning undergrad population?), Canadian universities gradually fell into line. By the 1970s, our two systems had coalesced into their present form.
And that, friends, is how Arts faculties got their smorgasbords and, to a large extent, jettisoned a coherent curriculum.