DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So students heading back to college this fall might find they can choose courses like the joy of garbage, zombies in popular media, or how about the sociology of Miley Cyrus? Kirk Carapezza of member station WGBH in Boston takes a look at how course catalogs have changed.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: At Amherst College in western Massachusetts, Catherine Epstein takes me down to the school's archives.
CATHERINE EPSTEIN: We have the papers of some sort of relatively famous alums. And then, we have lots of information just on the history of the college.
CARAPEZZA: Epstein is dean of the faculty at this small, liberal arts college. Amherst enrolls about 1,900 students and offers more than 850 courses, many of them small seminars.
EPSTEIN: So these guys are interested in catalogs.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great. Yeah, we pulled the three that you requested.
CARAPEZZA: Sitting around a big, oak table, Epstein and I dust off the 1966 leather-bound course catalog and compare it to the 2016 paperback.
My catalog only has 223 pages, and that includes the index.
EPSTEIN: This is the 2015-16. It has 591 pages.
CARAPEZZA: More pages means a lot more choices. In the late 1960s, Amherst and other liberal arts colleges responded to faculty demands and switched from a core curriculum where students all took the same courses, like English, math and the history of western civilization, to an open curriculum, giving students many options, with very few requirements outside their majors.
EPSTEIN: You can do anything that you want. If you never want to take a science class, you don't have to take a science class.
CARAPEZZA: As we flip through the 2016 catalog, Epstein gives me a sampling of some of the history department's offerings, like birth of the avant-garde - modern poetry and culture in France and Russia, 1870 to 1930.
That's not obscure?
EPSTEIN: That is not obscure, no. That's - no.
CARAPEZZA: Epstein defends every single course in the catalogue.
EPSTEIN: It's all good stuff, as long as it's taught in a rigorous way where students are challenged, where students can express their thoughts.
CARAPEZZA: With a $2 billion endowment and a $60,000 sticker price, Amherst can afford to pay faculty to teach all these courses. But as the cost of college continues to soar, critics are raising questions. Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which finds most of the country's leading colleges don't have rigorous general-education requirements. Poliakoff keeps tabs on those courses that he thinks are foolish.
MICHAEL POLIAKOFF: Video games and the boundaries of narrative, knowing television, Disney for grown-ups.
CARAPEZZA: Poliakoff has spent a lot of time studying the evolution of course catalogs.
POLIAKOFF: What we've seen is the multiplication of course options, often without rhyme or reason or any real respect for the kind of intellectual nutrition that students need.
CARAPEZZA: He thinks too many elite colleges treat their students like customers. And he points to recent studies that find many college students finish their four years without learning much more than what they came in with. Professors at Amherst reject that criticism. While some of their courses may sound soft, they say students are, in fact, learning hard skills.
NICOLA COURTRIGHT: How to analyze a text, how to understand an argument.
CARAPEZZA: Nicola Courtright teaches art history at Amherst. She says the college's open curriculum, it creates an ideal learning environment.
COURTRIGHT: Students know that they're not just taking classes because they should or they might get a job afterwards. They really have to take it out of fundamental interest.
CARAPEZZA: Amherst faculty would like to offer even more courses, and administrators seem open to the idea. Next fall, they're imagining a history course based on the Broadway hit "Hamilton." Amherst isn't alone. Brown, NYU and Cornell all plan to do the same. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.
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