The basic components of the undergraduate education in the United States were all introduced in the college curriculum before 1870. They included advanced learning skills, for example English language, mathematics, and foreign languages; general understanding components, for example courses on the federal and state constitutions, the Bible, and American institutions; breadth and distribution requirements, which introduced students to the main subject fields; a concentration or major, and, finally, electives.
In practice, there has been great variation in the curriculum from institution to institution, however. In fact, there is no such thing as the American college curriculum. Some colleges have no specific requirements for graduation. Some have no major programs. Some require no distribution. And most students use electives — which are now abundant — to intensify their specialization in a major.
The great variation in the American college curriculum is the result of an uneven response of individual institutions to a large number of influences found both inside and outside the college. Of the many that could be mentioned, the influences of students and faculty members are given the greatest attention in this discussion.
Students have an enormous impact on the curriculum simply by exercising the many choices of subjects and teachers that are available to them.
The influence of faculty members is crucial. Their number alone, for instance, really determines the size of the curriculum. Every time a faculty member is hired, as many as five courses may be introduced into the curriculum. Faculty interests, research commitments, and other such matters also may affect the nature of the curriculum.
Because there have been many changes in American higher education in the past 343 years, and because of sometimes conflicting external and internal forces, most of our colleges and universities are now cast adrift from a sense of mission. Stress is therefore placed on the importance of missions that are determined by each institution and made explicit at all levels, from the departments to larger divisions, to the colleges and universities themselves. In the work of the Carnegie Council and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, we did not prescribe missions. But we suggested that they be based on two concepts: the needs of individuals and the needs of society.
Much is said about general education, which we consider a disaster area. We say that it should include more than breadth or distribution requirements. It should also include integrative learning experiences of the sort that might be provided by area studies or other types of interdisciplinary programs.
There are times when the problems of general education seem insurmountable. At such times it is tempting to recommend that it be given up once and for all. Colleges could then define their missions in terms of what academic departments choose to offer and students choose to study and not what they believe is needed by students and society. We might reduce the time required to earn a bachelor's degree by a year or more if we pursued that option. But along the way, we might also lose touch with the tradition of American colleges and universities that assigns to them a creative, and not just a responsive role in the development of our society and our future.