Curriculum Changes in Trinity College: Continuous Conflicts of Two Goals

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Trinity College’s very first curriculum was significantly different from today’s curriculum. Students in 1824 moved together as a class and followed the prescribed daily routine, whereas now students choose their own courses and have individualized schedules. As of 2014, Trinity College curriculum for undergraduates is composed of distribution requirements, majors, and minors. For the distribution requirements, students have to take at least one course of each field of Arts, Humanities, Natural Science, Numerical & Symbolic Reasoning, Social Science, Global Engagement, and complete a First Year Seminar, Second Language, and two Writing Emphasis courses.[1] Out of the 36 credits that students need to earn for a Bachelor’s degree, approximately 10 to 12 credits are set aside for the general education requirements. However, according to the College Catalogue of 1824-1825, there was no major, minor, or distribution requirements, and all students had to take Rhetoric, Greek, Latin, Math, Philosophy, Natural Science, Social Science, Theology, and Physical training, following Trinity’s four-year plan.[2] Courses were not varied, and students’ choice was none or few. Until Trinity College has today’s curriculum, many major and minor changes have taken place. By comparing these distinct curricula, this essay explores when and how Trinity College shifted from a highly unified to a more individualized model with distribution requirements, focusing on why these changes happened.

Since Trinity College was established, there have been three important curriculum changes in 1949, 1969, and 1987. In 1949, the college tried to keep the essence of liberal arts education despite the rise of specialism and the returns of veterans after WWII by solidifying the general education. In 1969, accompanied by the coeducation, Trinity College established the open curriculum, which enabled students to choose courses besides major requirements. In 1987, Trinity got rid of the open curriculum and reorganized the distribution requirements. Overall, Trinity College’s curriculum development was a continuous tension between two objectives. On one hand, Trinity College desired to stay true to the ideals of liberal arts education emphasizing reasoning, argumentation, and close interaction with professors. On the other hand, it had to adopt new trends and demand rising in America, such as specialism and liberalism. Within each major change, one of these goals advanced further than the other.

Changes Prior to 1945

 Moving toward the professionalism and specialism was a general trend in American higher education in 1900s, and Trinity College was of no exception. Michael Bisesi describes the curriculum trend before 1945, in his paper Historical Developments in American Undergraduate Education: General Education and the Core Curriculum, as he says, “the pendulum of curricular change was on the side of specialization prior to 1945.”[3] The development and expansion of knowledge in science and technology pushed many American colleges and universities to become institutions where students could be prepared for certain occupations.

Although Trinity College started with the very tight, prescribed academic plan focusing on Classics and Philosophy, it also had to adopt the new field of studies. There was no major curriculum shift until mid twentieth century. Yet, the curriculum was revised over time little by little, leaning toward specialism. At first, Trinity divided students as Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science, and their curricula were arranged. As professional knowledge was required for many occupations, such as engineering and pre-medical, Trinity created groups under B.A. and B.S., which have became Today’s majors. The College Bulletin of 1920-1921 shows how Trinity College conceived majors as the preparation for specialized occupations, saying that choosing a major is “taking into account special aptitudes and interests, and plans for a future occupation, to ensure that he shall carry his studies in some subjects beyond the elementary stage.”[4]

However, despite the specialism, Trinity College had a relatively well-balanced curriculum. For example, as shown by the College Catalogue of 1930-1931, B.A. and B.S. programs had a different set of course plan. For B.A. groups, including Philosophy, Language, English, and History, more Math and Science were required, and for B.S. groups of Chemistry, Biology, Pre-medical, Engineering, and Physics more Language and Philosophy courses were required.[5] This system allowed students to explore a broad range of knowledge regardless of what group they chose. Also, only 8 to 10 courses were required for groups. Choosing one concentration did not mean that students would become narrow-sighted.

Changes After World War II in 1949

World War II brought many changes in higher education in America especially because of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Acts called the G.I. Bill. As the federal government experienced the struggles with returning veterans after the World War I, they passed the G.I. Bill, which supported returning veterans for their higher education. As a result, many veterans came back to Trinity to continue their education, and they shifted students’ general interest from Classics to more practical fields, such as engineering and business, in Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History, Peter Knapp describes, “the Trinity community in the late 1940s was becoming increasingly aware that changes were occurring in student interests, both academic and professional. As reflected in choice of major, the humanities were facing stiff competition from the social sciences and the sciences.”[6] Because returning veterans were older than traditional college students, and many of them already had a family to take care of, they preferred to study something that could secure their jobs after college.

While students’ interest and purpose of studying was moving toward vocationalism, the College wanted to keep the core of a liberal arts education. After WWII, many liberal arts colleges in New England experienced the same movement and tried to define the ideal of liberal arts education. The 1945 Harvard Report reveals how much these colleges struggled from overwhelming specialization, as it states, “we cannot, however, turn away from specialism. The problem is how to save general education and its values within a system where specialism is necessary.”[7] Trinity College went through scrutiny on its curriculum, emphasizing on general education. The college reasserted that Trinity College was a liberal arts college, as the College Bulletin of 1949-1950 notes, “one hundred twenty-seven years of experience at Trinity indicates that the liberal arts type of general education offers the best means of attaining the above aim.”[8]

President Funston aimed at restricting the small class size and fostering personal interaction with professors as a liberal arts college. However, he adopted some specialism trends by requiring a major and making Greek and Latin optional. The revised curriculum introduced B.A. and B.S with majors. Previously, there were groups that student could study in depth, but there was also an option not to choose a particular group. However, the revised curriculum required students to pick a major to get a Bachelor’s degree. In addition, the requirements for the Greek and Latin could be fulfilled by taking classical civilization courses instead. Not having Greek and Latin might look damaging to the essence of liberal arts education. However, Funston thought that the idea of liberal arts education in America should adopt the new culture in America, which could be different from Europeans:

“American education must make a strong effort to develop new curricula consonant not merely with America’s fateful involvement in world affairs but with the spectacular emergence into importance of great new societies whose culture did not seem to have the same value and meaning for Americans as the more traditional cultures of Western Europe and the Mediterranean.”[9]

Over all, the year of 1949 did not g285o through a drastic change. Rather, curriculum was revised little by little, and the direction of changes was different one at a time; sometimes leaning toward specialism, other times sticking to liberal arts education.

Open curriculum in 1969

Open curriculum allows students to take any courses besides their major requirements. The open curriculum was first introduced in 1969 at Trinity College. Students were encouraged to take any courses after discussing with their advisors. The College Bulletin in 1968-1969 and in 1970-1971 shows how the open curriculum worked. In 1968, before the open curriculum, there was a page explaining the basic requirements students needed to fulfill, which are equivalent to our distribution requirements. The requirements included a-year-long English, Math, Western History, Foreign Language, Natural Science, a semester long arts and Philosophy. These requirements were designed to be fulfilled during the first two years before digging into one major during one’s junior and senior years.[10]

On the contrary, in the College Bulletin of 1970-71, the basic requirement page was removed from the requirements for the Bachelor’s degree. Instead, the curriculum was introduced as a “dual” system. The first two years are “to provides a framework within which students can receive individual attention, discover their principal interests, and have repeatedly demonstrated to them that what they are doing in the College is worth the effort”; the last two years are to “focuses on a more strictly defined body of knowledge”.[11] The first part consists of the Freshmen Seminar and non-minor guideline. Although the school did not required students to take general courses, it still provided a direction that students could follow. Also, it created the Freshmen Seminar, as an opportunity to search what they were interested in.

The coeducation in 1968 influenced this curriculum changes. As the college admitted female students, it had to go through transformative shifts in and out. As the school opened new departments to satisfy women’s demand, not every department could be a part of the distribution requirement. The college had to let students take courses in the new departments, and the open curriculum was a solution to this problem. Furthermore, though women and minority students were a small percent of the entire student body, their academic interests were different from white male students. To meet the interests of new student groups and to attract more competitive students, Trinity decided to make the curriculum flexible.

In addition to the coeducation, 1960s was the decade of the counterculture in America. Knapp described that undergraduates were inspired by American’s war involvement with Indonesia, the assassinations of a few leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and they “questioned the state of affairs in the nation, and challenged prevailing assumptions about authority and tradition.” [12]Sit-in happening shows that students at Trinity also raised their voices on campus. The sit-in was an organized movement in 1968 from a group of students to lock in the Board of Trustee until the Trustees decided to give more scholarships to Black students. Students locked the door for four hours, and it drew much attention not just on campus, but also in New England. Although it was not directly related to the changes in curriculum, it suggests that students expressed their concerns and asked for more freedom, and the school had to take into account them even when they changed the curriculum.

Going Back to the Distribution Requirements in 1987

After implementing the open curriculum for a couple of decades, the school recognized the failure that students preferred to be in the safety net and not take various courses. According to Knapp’s account, “under the open curriculum, furthermore, many students had preferred taking courses in the humanities and social sciences, and when possible, avoided the study of the natural and physical sciences.”[13] The school had to make sure that students left the school with a minimum knowledge in essential disciplines. Moreover, there were some students who were attracted by the open curriculum with the intention of “finding a shelter in the open curriculum from requirements other colleges and universities were imposing.”[14] As a solution, the college introduced interdisciplinary minors and required students to take six courses from at least three different fields. However, the minor requirement rather confused both faculties and students. Unlike the college’s intention that students could learn the correlation among different fields, students just took courses in separate departments because there was a lack of intercommunication among different departments. Departments were specialized in one subject, and there were not many cases that multiple departments worked together. It was not a true interdisciplinary.

President English was concerned that students did not benefit by the open curriculum, and faculties agreed with his thoughts as well. Finally, in 1987, the second major curricular change occurred with the introduction of a five-part distribution requirement under which students had to complete “at least one course in each of the five major areas in the curriculum – humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and numerical or symbolic reasoning” in addition to writing and mathematics proficiency requirements.”[15] The Curriculum Revision Committee Report indicated that the school wanted more concrete and solid curriculum that would be efficient in fostering students’ knowledge when it states that a curriculum “ought to be a practical guide to the realities of academic life at a given institution, and it ought to embody some educational idea.”[16] As a liberal arts college, Trinity desired students to be exposed to various fields. Even though more choices and freedom of students were important components, they were overweighed by the objective of staying true to liberal arts education.


Over time, Trinity College went through many curriculum changes, and the direction was not consistent all the time comparing the three major changes in 1949, 1969, and 1987. In 1949, the college partly followed the trend of specialism while trying to stick to the liberal arts college. In 1969, the school made a drastic changes and was more acceptable to social changes. In 1987, the college reversed the movement and came back to the arranged curriculum with more requirements. Overall, the school struggled to keep the identity of a liberal arts college especially in the midst of the drastic social and technological changes in the twentieth century. Because the two objectives of keeping the essence of liberal arts education and serving social needs are conflicting each other, the college had to move back and forth and find the middle point where the college could fulfill the both objectives. Trinity might currently experience the same struggles that it had in the past as the society and technology is changing in higher speed. Finding the true meaning of liberal arts education and staying true to it can be much more difficult these days. However, as Trinity history shows the college will manage to find a middle point again.


[1] Trinity College. Student Handbook 2013-2014, 2013.

[2] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1823-1824. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1823. Print. (Located at Watkinson Library at Trinity College)

[3] Bisesi, Michael. 1982. “Historical Developments in American Undergraduate Education: General Education and the Core Curriculum.” British Journal of Educational Studies 30 (2): 203. doi:10.2307/3121552.

[4] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1920-1921, Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1920.

[5] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1930-1931. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1930.

[6] Knapp, Peter J. Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History:146. Hartford, Conn: Trinity College, 2000.

[7] Quoted in Bisesi., 204.

[8] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1949-1950:25. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1949.

[9] Knapp., 285.

[10]  Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1968-1969. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1969

[11] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1970-1971. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1970.

[12] Knapp., 327.

[13]  Knapp., 407.

[14] Knapp., 407.

[15] Knapp., 407.

[16] Quoted in [16] Trinity College. Trinity College Bulletin of 1970-1971. Watkinson Library: Trinity College, 1970.

One thought on “Curriculum Changes in Trinity College: Continuous Conflicts of Two Goals”

  1. After a detailed comparison of Trinity’s curriculum in 1824 versus today, the introduction offers an insightful research question on how and why the College shifted from a unified to a more individualized model with distribution requirements over time. The thesis paragraph responds with a rich argument about three key shifts in the late 20th century and tensions between liberal arts education and specialization.

    The body of the essay includes rich detail from Trinity Bulletins with clearly defined section headings, but occasionally I got lost in how pieces fit into the broader argument. For example, I was surprised to see the language of specialization and occupational preparation (with examples such as Pre-Medical) in the 1920s-30s because this seemed to come later in your opening chronology. Perhaps there was more specialization and professionalization in the early 20th century than the traditional liberal arts histories suggest? The post-WWII shift toward more vocationalism, with options in place of the Classical curriculum, was much clearer.

    The 1969 shift to an open curriculum at Trinity is fascinating, and while this is the best description I’ve read, a richer essay might include screenshots or samples of student coursework to communicate the significance of this curricular change. For example, what did a typical 4-year course of study look like for a pre- vs. post-1969 student at Trinity? Furthermore, I’m not persuaded by the claim that the open curriculum occurred due to co-education, as the entering classes of women were small in number (it remained an overwhelmingly male campus for many years) and the essay does not show evidence the “academic interests [of women and minority students] were different from white male students.” By contrast, your counter-culture argument is stronger.

    Finally, the essay clearly explains the shift from open education to the 5-area general ed requirements that exist today, with an interesting argument about removing “shelters” and exposing students to different disciplines. Overall, I predict that this essay will encourage many readers to learn more about Trinity’s curricular shifts and I hope that you consider revising and/or expanding it, either on your own or for future academic work.

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