Editorial: Updating distribution requirements in the College of Arts and Sciences

It has been decades since the graduation requirements for the College of Arts and Sciences at Tufts have been seriously and holistically re-evaluated. The Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate and faculty members are currently assessing whether or not our long-held distribution requirements are congruent with the university’s current values and needs. The graduation requirement system mandates that students in the College of Arts and Sciences must fulfill two credits in each given subject area (humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematical sciences), as well as complete a “world civilizations” course, a six-credit foreign language requirement and a first-year writing requirement.

While these requirements are well-intentioned and facilitate interdisciplinary exposure, they are in need of major reform. An undergraduate education at Tufts should be flexible and accommodating of students’ academic interests. The distribution requirements, in their current state, tend to hinder educational exploration in many cases, as they encourage students to “check the boxes” for their graduation requirements rather than explore courses that legitimately interest them. Accordingly, the administration and the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) should work together with students to reexamine our current system and consider revising and reducing the number of distribution requirements to allow for greater academic freedom.

The intent behind graduation requirements — to provide students with a comprehensive liberal arts education — makes sense, but its implementation creates challenges. Although many Tufts students want the ability to explore new disciplines, introductory courses in many departments are notoriously difficult classes that intimidate non-majors. The high barriers to entry in more demanding introductory courses mean that humanities majors take the same few filler classes just to get their other requirements out of the way. Instead of actually exploring fields outside their comfort zones, many students breeze through classes with little relevance to their interests, putting in minimal effort.

We must find a better way to encourage students to leave their comfort zones and try new things, rather than incentivizing them to take the easier (but less valuable) route. One simple solution would be to require students to take a certain number of courses outside of their majors and minors, instead of requiring particular subjects. This would encourage students to expand their academic horizons and explore new areas without being forced to take courses that either do not interest them or are deemed invaluable to their studies and future careers. 

The current requirements are not always applied fairly, either. Advanced Placement (AP) credits allow certain students to test out of requirements, while other students are at a disadvantage if their schools did not offer such opportunities. The system perpetuates educational inequities that hold students of different backgrounds to different standards. While this problem cannot be solved without eliminating AP credits altogether, which would be especially controversial for students who wish to pursue multiple majors, it can be mitigated by lessening the burden of the distribution requirements themselves.

According to a poll conducted by the TCU Senate last year, 86 percent of A&S students surveyed said that there are “too many” or “many” graduation requirements. Because such a large portion of undergraduates clearly feel burdened or unsatisfied with academic requirements, it is necessary that the administration update the current system in order to reflect student feedback and interests. While requirements are intended to aid students in choosing a comprehensive, broad-minded academic curriculum, they should not lead students to feel limited throughout their academic careers or to take classes of little interest or value to them. The administration and EPC should therefore aim to incorporate students’ interests, concerns and proposals for productive change.

Not only will mitigations and revisions to the current system provide students with greater academic freedom and flexibility, but they will also ensure that our graduation requirements are modernized and in line with our current university values. Like any other academic policy, graduation requirements should be updated and reassessed on a regular basis. Just as the university took the important step to implement a new, standardized credit system earlier this year, the same modernization process should take place with graduation requirements.

The TCU Senate’s initiative to modernize these requirements is long overdue and will have a lasting impact on the Tufts community. The details of each course and requirement can seem trivial, but these small decisions comprise the values and goals of a Tufts education. Distribution requirements are a cornerstone of the liberal arts curriculum, and must be re-examined to reflect the university’s focus on interdisciplinary learning, active citizenship and other values important to students. The reform process may be long and overwhelming, but it gives us a chance to determine how we want to build our education and our future.