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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Elective Courses

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ELECTIVE COURSES and ELECTIVE STUDIES, as applied to colleges and universities in particular, and to all schools in general, may be defined broadly as that principle in education which permits the student to choose his own subjects of study during the time of attendance at school.

The “elective” or “optional” feature of educational systems is not new: it was in existence in many of the leading schools of the Mediæval Ages, and even earlier. In the United States the principle first appeared in the curriculum of the University of Virginia in 1819. Harvard introduced it in 1826, and from that time on it received more or less recognition throughout the country. However, so few availed themselves of the privilege of making the elective choice that more and more it came to be required that students should pursue certain studies in order to obtain the degree of bachelor of arts; and such restriction eventually led to the exclusion of all studies that did not contribute to the obtaining of the desired degree. Gradually the secondary schools adopted compulsory courses of study preparatory for colleges, and crowded out many of the studies that might fit the student for business life without going the college road. The special commercial, scientific and art schools came into existence to meet the wants and needs of a large number of students. In the meantime, the addition of many new branches of study so enlarged the educational resources of the larger institutions that a selection of studies became a necessity, and it seemed wise to allow the student to elect a course which should definitely aid him in preparing for a chosen occupation after leaving college. The difficulty experienced in the extension of the elective course has been found in the fact that the choice made by the untutored mind of the average student was likely to be ill-balanced. This defect is overcome where able instructors, those who understand human nature and its needs, guide the immature student; or, to use the modern term, where there are wise “advisers.” Present practice shows a wide variation from administrations where the entire course is rigidly prescribed to those where every study is elective. In most colleges a part of the course is prescribed and the remainder elective. The tendency, however, is toward a system in which, while there are prescribed courses, the student is encouraged or perhaps required to concentrate his energies on some special line of study, and to round out his course with studies wholly elective, with the advice of the professors. In order to ascertain what colleges and universities sanction elective courses it is necessary to obtain the latest changes direct from the college authorities. As an illustration of the policy of the educational institutions in the United States the following summary gathered from 29 State universities and 55 other colleges and universities is of interest. English is required in 78 of these institutions; it is elective in 6. One (at least) foreign language is required in 68; elective in 14. Mathematics is required in 61; elective in 23. Natural science is required in 52: elective in 32. History is required in 41; elective in 43. Physical education is required in 38; elective in 46. Philosophy is required in 32; elective in 52. Psychology is required in 21; elective in 63.

Consult Adams, ‘Evolution of Educational Theory’ (1912); Baker, ‘American Problems’ (1907); Burns, ‘Elective System of Studies in Colleges’ (Catholic World, Vol. LXXI, 366}; Eliot, ‘Educational Reform’ (1905); and ‘Essays and Addresses’ (1909); Foster, ‘Administration of the College Curriculum’ (1911); Hanus, ‘Problem of Electives’ (Popular Science Monthly, Vol. LVIII, 58); Phillips, ‘Electives in American Education’ (Pedagogical Seminary, Vol. VIII, 206); Shaler, Thurber and others. ‘Elective Studies in Secondary Schools’ (Educational Review, Vol. XV, 417); Thurber, ‘Some Problems of the Elective System’ (School Review, Vol. IX, 79).