Dan Edelstein | Institutional Design for Liberal Education

(or, The Great Curricular Heist: How Departments Carved Up Undergraduate Education)

Departments often determine over half the courses that students can study in college. How did control of the curriculum come to be parceled out in this manner? In this paper, I question the standard narrative that the evolution of the classic American college into a modern research university inevitably transformed undergraduate education along the way. In fact, the first PhD-granting graduate programs were introduced at schools that would long remain attached to a fixed college curriculum (Yale, Princeton). What’s more, Eliot’s famed elective system--long assumed to be an American adaptation of German Lernfreiheit--proved unsuccessful as a curricular principle. But it did accomplish one important result: when the concentration/major system caught on as the preferred alternative to electives, the departments took control of a curriculum mostly abandoned by the college of faculty. In conclusion, I ponder whether the status quo is the inevitable conclusion of American higher ed, or whether other institutional models (such as the College at the University of Chicago) can offer alternative models for combining the teaching and research missions of the university.

About the Speaker

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor of Political Science and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He also is the Christensen Faculty Director of Stanford Introductory Studies at Stanford, where he directs the new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement for all first-year students. He is currently working on an intellectual history of revolution, tentatively titled The Revolution Next Time (Princeton, forthcoming).

In advance of the workshop, please read three essays that will be in conversation with Edelstein's project: 

1. Charles W. Eliot’s Atlantic essay on “The New Education"
2. Charles W. Eliot's Atlantic essay on "The New Education: Its Organization, Part II" 
3. The first chapter of Clark Kerr’s Uses of the University

About the Series

Claire and John Radway Research Workshop

The Education and the Humanities workshop is sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center and made possible by support from Claire and John Radway, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.