Distribution Requirements: Why the Changes?

This article was co-written by Dylan O’Connell

Recently, the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) held an open forum to discuss proposed changes to the General Education Distribution requirements. In this series of articles we will describe and discuss the proposed system.

An hc-all email was sent on January 25 containing the proposed changes as well as a list of questions and responses (all students are highly advised to first read the document here and the FAQ here). Many of us at the poorly attended meeting did not agree with the purpose and content of these proposed changes, and we believe it is important that the student body engages in a more active dialogue before they are implemented.

In this article we discuss why these changes are being made. Most salient are the purpose and motivation for these changes. As stated in the FAQ:

The primary reason is that the Academy as a whole has evolved in directions that make divisional boundaries increasingly arbitrary, even as new disciplinary possibilities evolve. At Haverford, recently introduced programs in Environmental Studies, Peace, Justice and Human Rights, Health Studies, and Visual Studies all challenge our understanding of distinct divisional boundaries, and we expect that the number of courses and programs that cross divisions will increase.


While it is true that divisional boundaries reflect historical distinctions, it is not the case that individual courses defy categorization along the spectrum between Natural Science, Social Science, and Humanities. There is no reason why a fundamentally interdisciplinary course, such as one in which hypothesis tests are carried out on works of literature, should not be counted as both as a natural science and a humanity. It should be noted that the new system allows putting a course in multiple distributional boxes, which fixes this problem. However, the distributional boxes proposed are not ideal. (It should be noted that distribution assignments should be assigned on the course level, and not on the departmental level as is suggested by the quote).

The new system, in broad strokes, attempts to fix this change by introducing more detailed requirements so that it is easier to choose which box particular courses go into. We consider this solution to simply be compounding the problem it hopes to address. In the committee’s own words:


Requiring students to take courses from a more refined array of possibilities will also help them begin to explore the curriculum in a more nuanced and deliberate way, both as a prelude to discovering areas for future study and as a way of ensuring a rounded set of perspectives on learning.


The irony is that the proposed system places stricter requirements on each course taken to satisfy distribution requirements, which which runs counter to this idea of purposeful student exploration of the curriculum. Nor does this address the more fundamental issue; students prioritize the courses in their major, and then search for the courses that fit into the interstices of their schedule while still satisfying a particular remaining requirement.

Beyond discouraging exploration, such a system penalizes students for exploring what they are actually interested in and excited about taking courses in. Many students know the feeling of not being able to take a course because they needed to take some distribution requirement instead. Increasing the number of requirements only worsens this problem: it will fill classes with people who do not want to be there bringing down the standard of the class for those that do.

This type of problem is symptomatic of a system that is complicated. The current system can be summarized in a brief sentence “students need to complete a year of a foreign language, one quantitative course, and three courses representing at least two departments from each academic discipline.” A tour guide can effectively describe our educational requirements without skipping a beat. This is not a trivial concern. Students frequently place admissions decisions based on general education requirements, and the authors have talked to many Haverford students who were turned off from other colleges due to onerous requirements.

The new system is opaque and complex, and this complexity has a significant cost. We can no longer fully explain our requirements to interested students. Our best attempt can be: “we have to take roughly 12 courses that satisfy a variety of different topics and fields.” To a prospective student, this mystery is equally as intimidating as the strictest system, as they cannot evaluate the potential burden.

In future articles, we will examine in detail and explain to the best of our understanding the remaining proposed distribution requirements. We will also discuss problems with the present system that are problems for students not bureaucratic technicalities like figuring out where a given course goes. We argue in favor of a system of distribution requirements that is easy to understand and faithful to the principles of a liberal arts education: a less restrictive version of the current system.

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