Author’s Note: After reading the article “An Examination of Curriculums” by Payce Shepard last week, I felt it was worthwhile to engage in a bit of a deeper dive on the topic. I’d also been researching the topic for another article I was planning on writing about that didn’t materialize, but there’s enough left over from it that I feel it’s worth looking into further.
Wheaton’s old curriculum has been the subject of a lot of controversy. Some feel that it takes away agency from students choosing their own paths, such as Emily Gray, who was previously quoted in Shepard’s article, while others argue that it allows students greater freedom, such as Provost Renee White. Before any analysis of whether or not the new curriculum has been successful is to be done, it is worthwhile to examine why the new curriculum was created and what problems it is supposed to solve that the old curriculum did not address.
The new curriculum was created to “allow for exploration” and “allow risk taking” according to White. In Shepard’s article, he quotes co-chair of the Curriculum Design Team, Karen McCormack, who argues that the team found “students had broad interests but they weren’t able to explore them because of the strict nature of the curriculum.”
On first glance, it appears that the new curriculum is greatly successful in doing so, as the new curriculum only really has four requirements, which are to sign up for at least one major, choose a MAP advisor to write a short reflection paper to, and complete First-Year and Sophomore Experience courses. There are other optional programs, which we will get into later. Realistically, the new curriculum only has two requirements, as the reflection paper is quite short and no one is going to choose less than one major. However, this is where the cracks in the new curriculum begin to be apparent.
When it comes to First-Year Experience (FYE) courses, Ty Tempelski, ‘25, argues that they “completely suck,” and notes that having to “have a certain course at a certain time really [screwed up] my schedule.” However, Gianna Wyatt, ‘24, has a slightly different view, arguing that FYE courses are the “only things we HAVE to take,” echoing the sentiments of White. I think they both make fair points, but the first-year courses have been a long-standing problem at Wheaton, with many students in my class year also having complained about previous First-Year Seminar courses not being interesting and/or taking up a slot in their schedule.
When it comes to Sophomore Experiences, it doesn’t get any better. The Sophomore Experience course is supposed to be a real-world, hands-on experience that Wheaton describes as “career exploration.” Audrey Klooster ‘24, a Biochemistry major, notes that she is not a fan of the Sophomore Experience course, and is “working with Residential Life” for it, “not because [that was] something [she] was interested in” but because it was “the only thing left that [she] didn’t hate.” Klooster noted that she attempted to get a position with the Greenhouse and other more Biology-based positions, but couldn’t find any. Klooster feels like she’s been “stuck with a shitty internship” which especially stings since she’s planning to “do another internship later.” Klooster does note that she is lucky and has “been mentored before” and that others “might need it.” I am greatly in favor of applying academics to the real world and a huge personal reason why I decided to attend Wheaton was because I feel Wheaton is great at doing so, but I’m unsure if the Sophomore Experience is the best way to do so.
However, the thing that seems to have students most disgruntled is the attachment of the Eliza Wheaton Honors program to the Latin Honors program. The Eliza Wheaton program is basically the old curriculum, except it switches out the “Beyond the West” requirement (which most often was fulfilled by a history course) for a “Structures of Power and Inequality” requirement, it adds a Creative Arts course to the division requirements, and removes the old “Connections” requirement. Klooster, who notes that she is overall in favor of the Eliza Wheaton program, says that “STEM majors being told they need to take a dance class or arts class [isn’t very good] for scheduling.” Tempelski agrees, and suggests that students should be “able to specialize a bit more” while still “being able to earn Latin Honors.” A member of the Wheaton faculty who I talked to noted that students under the new curriculum are doing more work if they wish to earn Latin Honors than under the old curriculum.
Every single student that I interviewed for this article was taking the Eliza Wheaton Honors program to indirectly or directly ensure their eligibility for Latin Honors, with only a handful also opting into other Honors programs. With this in mind, it seems like the new curriculum has utterly failed it’s goal of encouraging students to explore. Why have we made a new curriculum if the new curriculum barely changes the bottom line of what students are required to do, except (arguably) for the worse. One could argue that no one is required to take the Eliza Wheaton program, but choosing to do so is opting yourself out of the most prestigious awards Wheaton can give. I think Wheaton needs to seriously re-evaluate the new curriculum as a whole, or dissatisfaction among STEM students and other students taking majors with high-credit requirements will continue to rise. This is especially pressing given Wheaton’s plans to expand its science programs, which are obvious given the renovation and expansion of the Old Science Center.
However, I think that discouraging students from taking the Eliza Wheaton program is also not a great solution, as it is the last remaining “true liberal arts” program in the curriculum, specifically requiring cross-discipline study. Wheaton has already been shaken up a ton in recent years, and with these changes to the curriculum and the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s unclear if what makes Wheaton so special will remain the same. Wheaton seems unsure of what exactly it wants to do with itself. Does it want to be a science school, does it want to hold on to its liberal arts background, are they even at odds? Is there a solution that doesn’t screw over STEM majors but also keeps Wheaton’s liberal arts identity alive? I think a reestablishment of the Connections program, more cross-listed courses on the Course Catalog, or more courses specifically created to foster cross-disciplinary learning are all possible band-aid solutions. But at the end of the day, I don’t think there is an easy answer, and all that is clear to me is that the new curriculum overall brings more problems that solutions to this important issue.