The New International Encyclopædia/Elective Courses
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ELECTIVE COURSES and ELECTIVE STUDIES. Terms that have come into common use during the last thirty or forty years in American colleges, and to some extent in other educational establishments, to indicate the studies which may be elected or chosen by undergraduate students. In earlier days there was a required curriculum which must be followed by all candidates for the degree of bachelor of arts. At a later period, to meet the special needs or wishes of individuals, certain studies were made ‘optional’ — modern languages, for example, the higher branches of mathematics, botany, surveying, and other scientific or technical branches. The rapid growth of science and the enlarged resources of the colleges were naturally followed by enlargement of the teaching forces, and by provision for instruction in subjects before neglected. Choice became imperative. To a considerable extent this necessity was recognized and satisfied by the foundation of technical or scientific schools, sometimes departments of or annexes to the old colleges, sometimes independent establishments. Gradually the old curriculum, often called the regular college course, yielded to the same influences. A few institutions still adhere, with commendable pride, to the theory of a liberal education based upon the classics and mathematics — antecedent to the time-honored baccalaureate degree. Yet the American colleges generally offer in these days a very considerable freedom in the selection of subjects to which the student may devote his time. There are certain inherent dangers in this freedom. The love of ease may lead to the selection of courses — which are called ‘soft’ in college parlance — exacting but little mental effort; or the ignorance and inexperience of youth may lead to selections which will be regretted in mature life. To obviate such dangers, it is common to lay before the students ‘groups’ of subjects which form a good combination. With more or less emphasis these ‘groups’ are commended to students. As a further guide to the wise selection of subjects, members of a faculty are always ready to give advice, and in some places those teachers who are most interested in pedagogies are officially recognized as ‘advisers’ — a term which seems to have been introduced to supersede that of tutors, who were regarded rather as disciplinarians than as counselors. On the whole, the establishment of elective courses marks a propitious advance in higher education. The system works well wherever due care is exercised by the authorities to secure industry, application, and concentration. The University of Virginia was a pioneer in the provision of electives. Most of the State universities are now thoroughly committed to the principle. The older colleges, led by Harvard, have adopted it to a greater or less extent. The new foundations — Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and Leland Stanford, Junior — have never felt the fetters of a traditional curriculum.
The exact position of any college can be ascertained only by reference to its latest announcements, for changes frequently occur in the subjects offered and in the technical requirements for degrees. Consult: Butler, Education in the United States (Albany, 1900); Eliot, Educational Reform (New York, 1898); The Educational Reform (New York, 1891, et seq.). See Colleges, American; University; and the various institutions.