Alfred Zawadowski, in an interesting article called "Bologna: Deformed Beginning, Good Direction," noted that the real strength of American higher education is its diversity. Here I will describe the academic requirements of Yale College. The emphasis here is on "College," although in ordinary parlance the distinction is rarely made between Yale University and Yale College.
At Yale University the bachelor-granting Yale College is still the heart of the system. At Harvard the emphasis long ago shifted to the Graduate School, but Yale, always educationally conservative, is still clinging to the importance of the College. After all, this is where it all started in 1701. All Yale professors, including Nobel Prize winners, must teach undergraduates. In addition to Yale College and the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University consists of several "schools": Architecture, Art, Divinity, Drama, Engineering and Applied Science, Forestry and Enviromental Studies, Law, Management, Medicine, Music, Nursing, Public Health, as well as the Institute of Sacred Music.
Yale College is relatively small. Yearly 1,300 students gain admission, and here the competition is fierce. A few years ago these lucky 1,300 were chosen out of about 10,000 applicants but by now the number of applicants has doubled. Almost all American college-bound students take the SAT (scholastic aptitude test), the results of which help to determine which college the student will attend. Each college and university makes public the average SAT scores of its incoming students, and thus the applicant pretty well knows where to apply and where not to.
As I mentioned in one of my comments, there are two kinds of requirements in American colleges. First, the requirements for graduation and then, within that, the requirements of the department the student picked as his/her major. The overall requirements, that is the number of courses necessary for the bachelor's degree, are pretty much the same everywhere. At Yale most courses count for one credit while at other institutions people talk of credit hours, but it's the same concept. Let's say that if a course meets three times a week that course is worth three credit hours.
So, although there are a few exceptions, at Yale one semester course means one credit. For a bachelor's degree Yale College demands 36 credits in eight semesters. So, in four semesters one must take at least five courses and in the other four at least four courses. However, most people end up with more than 36 credits.
At the end of each year, a certain minimal number of credits must be accumulated for "promotion," that is to be able to move up to the next class. Problems with promotion occur mostly in the first (freshman) year. It is the student's dean who watches the progress of the student and warns him of impending dangers. Because if a student doesn't have at least six credits by the end of the first year he is stuck. His only option is to enroll in another institution during the summer from which he can apply a maximum of two credits toward a Yale degree. What happens if the student falls hopelessly behind? He will have to leave the institution for a whole year in the hopes that he will get his act together. So, it is a very structured, very strict system. One can't "linger" on.
Now we come to the basic philosophy of education, at least at Yale. Education is described in lofty terms. The very first sentence in describing the undergraduate curriculum summarizes this philosophy: "Yale College offers a liberal arts education, one that aims to cultivate a broadly informed, highly disciplined intellect without specifying in advance how that intellect will be used." And it continues in this vein: "The College does not seek primarily to train students in the particulars of a given career…. Its main goal is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose."
As opposed to the common belief that students just pick and choose courses at random, there are strict "distributional guidelines." Yale demands, especially in the early years, a reasonable diversity of subject matter and approach and in the later years concentration in one of the major programs or departments. So, what are these distributional requirements? Every student must fulfill distributional requirements by taking no fewer than two course credits in the humanities and arts, two in the sciences, and two in the social sciences. Students must also take at least two course credits in quantitative reasoning, two course credits in writing, and courses to further their foreign language proficiency. The college strongly urges students to study abroad for a summer or for a whole year.
One cannot make a blanket statement about the intellectual content of American higher education. Just as Zawadowski emphasized, American higher education is extremely diverse. No one doubts that there are many colleges which are glorified high schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of excellent ones. Here is one ranking of American universities which shows that there are many outstanding universities. They number in the hundreds.
As for the quality of high schools. Again, there are some excellent high schools and some lousy ones. It is not quite accurate to say that university officials simply disregard high school and start everything from zero. First, there are certain requirements to enter college. Second, in better high schools the student can take AP courses (Advanced Placement) which under certain circumstances can be used as college credits. It is true that the admission committee pays perhaps less attention to high school grades than to SAT scores, but that makes eminent sense. High school standards can be so different that grades given at that level don't tell us much about the intelligence of the student, or even his knowledge. SAT scores, on the other hand, in my experience at least, are excellent predictors of success in college. There are several internet sites when one can get a taste of SAT questions. Here is one. You can sit down and have fun. Keep in mind that the test is for seventeen-eighteen-year-old kids.
And finally, what kinds of tests should be given to applicants either to college or to professional schools? I heartily disliked the Hungarian entrance examination students had to take a few years ago if, let's say, they applied to law school. I used to subscribe to Rubicon, a popular history magazine, which each year gave samples of history entrance exams. Horror! Primitive essay questions and demands for facts, facts, and more facts. I think Hungarian law schools would be much better off if they demanded tests similar to the American LSAT tests. Again, if anyone wants to exercise his mind, I highly recommend taking a look at the samples. I wonder whether, for example, Mr. Gyula Budai who parades as a lawyer in charge of criminal behavior of political opponents would ever get into a law school after taking one of these tests. I somehow doubt it.
Finally, anyone who is interested in listening to some undergraduate lectures at Yale can enjoy a few that are available on line. I very much enjoyed David Blight's course, The Civil War and Reconstruction, but there are many others. I doubt that anyone would think that this is just warmed up high school stuff.