A New University Proviso: Studying Outside Your Major

Under a new initiative spearheaded by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budget Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, undergraduate students will be required to take courses that are outside their specific field of study to broaden their general knowledge.

"Students don't even know what they don't know," Trajtenberg said recently. "We have a great responsibility to afford broader thought and a broader education," he said. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem introduced a program along these lines in the current academic year, and Council for Higher Education officials say that the country's other colleges and universities will follow suit next year.

Trajtenberg is eager to refute rumors that the change will extend the time needed to earn a degree.

Dissatisfaction by council officials and certain universities with the narrow focus of undergraduate studies is behind the initiative. "Someone studying economics must also know history, just as one can't be a philosopher without some knowledge of economics," Trajtenberg said. "It's hard to measure the damage caused by a narrow education, but it definitely exists."

Prof. Sarah Stroumsa, rector of the Hebrew University, explains that in Israeli institutions of higher education students pick an area of concentration in their freshman year. "But the student population is varied and most students don't plan to be researchers. As a result they end up not knowing basic things later on. We believe that university graduates must first of all be educated citizens," she said.

Trajtenberg is proposing that students be required to take between four and six course hours outside their majors during their undergraduate studies, with that number eventually rising to 12 hours. In addition, he said, the eventual goal is for students to be able to take some of these courses at other colleges or universities.

In Hebrew University's new program, called Cornerstone, all fields of knowledge fall into one of three groups: humanities, experimental sciences and mathematics (which includes the natural sciences, medicine, agriculture and math); and social sciences (which also includes law, social work and business administration). All incoming freshmen were instructed to choose two courses (four credits) from the two groups outside their main area of study. About 40 courses were developed especially for non-major students, including "The Beauty of Mathematics," "The History of Social Thought" and "Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State." Around 1,500 students were expected to enroll in these courses, but around 2,400 actually signed up for them.

Trajtenberg said that recent surveys show students are very satisfied with the change. He added that the program will be expanded by next year. Prof. Oded Navon, who heads Cornerstone, notes that "at a certain stage the studies within the major will have to contract slightly. The various departments will freshen up their 'specific' curricula and in addition we will profit by having students with a broader education."