How Central is the Core?

Dec 22, 2011 |  Peter Wood

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How Central is the Core?

Dec 22, 2011 | 

Peter Wood

The City University of New York is in the midst of adopting a thirty-credit common core curriculum. Hooray? Unfortunately, no. The CUNY core is actually a dilution of academic standards—another instance of adopting the rubric of intellectual rigor to advance the cause of intellectual relaxation.

Core Considerations

My organization, the National Association of Scholars, generally believes that a college curriculum should have a “core.” That is to say, undergraduate students almost always benefit when a college makes deliberate and thoughtful decisions about the body of knowledge and particular intellectual skills that it would like all of its students to acquire. When such a core is established, students have a base of shared knowledge that enables them to engage in deeper and more constructive conversation with each other. Upper-level courses, built on the foundation of a common core, can reach higher levels of sophistication. Faculty members can count on their students having a well-rounded understanding of the basics instead of finding in each new group of students a Swiss cheese of randomly distributed holes.

The process of establishing a core curriculum has its own benefits. It forces faculty members in disparate disciplines to sit down together and talk about what, if anything, is essential to an undergraduate education. What, ideally, should students learn first? Are there any books that are indispensable to a bachelor’s degree? What are the skills without which a college education will just sputter along?

Like most academics, I have my own answers to questions like this, but they are just my answers, not a proposal for a universal college curriculum. That’s because colleges (and universities) pursue diverse intellectual missions. Each mission really should entail a core curriculum that captures its pedagogical purpose. The St. John’s Great Books curriculum isn’t right for M.I.T., and the core curriculum requirements at the University of Texas at Austin, which includes “American and Texas Government,” wouldn’t be a good match for the Honors Core Program at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, which is strangely silent on the latter career of Davy Crockett.

This might sound like an invitation to anything-goes, but that’s not what I mean. Merely calling some collection of courses a “core” doesn’t make it so, and the widespread dodge of labeling a set of very broad distribution requirements as a “core curriculum” doesn’t begin to pass muster. Distribution requirements can buy peace with the faculty by promising a slice of the curricular pie to every department, but they are a weak substitute for a faculty (or an administration) coming to terms with what students really need to know. Distribution requirements, at least when they are used as a substitute for rather than an enhancement of an actual core curriculum, are easily gamed by students, who all too often figure out the expedient path around the subjects they care least for. If we want to know how so many students manage to earn degrees without learning much of anything, anemic distribution requirements loom as a big part of the answer.

While I am not an advocate of a one-size-fits-every-college core curriculum, I am perfectly ready to advocate that some core curricula are better than others. I think it would be wise for every college and university in the United States to require every student to pass a survey course on the history of Western civilization, and one on American history. I also think it would be wise for every college to set a high standard for expository writing that every student has to pass in his freshman year as a prerequisite for further study. My judgments on these matters are not likely to be adopted with acclamation by today’s colleges and universities, but they are grounded in a well-established body of thought about how higher education can serve students in a free society.

That larger body of thought deserves more attention than I can give it here; I mention it as one might an Adirondack stream and say this is the Hudson River. You have to stay with it to see it whole.

A college that has a core curriculum is, other things being equal, better than one without. That goal of establishing a core curriculum, however, has become elusive since we decided some decades back that students are by and large ready to judge for themselves what is worth knowing. Today’s curricula are shaped by several large forces that run counter to the idea of a faculty deliberating over how to provide a coherent and integrated college education. Among these forces are:

  • The idea of the student as a consumer who essentially shops for the courses that suit his taste. 
  • The related idea of the student as an individual who pursues education as a quest for self-definition.
  • The idea of the “multiversity,” first enunciated by University of California’s first head, Clark Kerr, in 1964, in the Uses of the University. The multiversity is a congeries of enterprises with no philosophical center. 
  • Behind the multiversity lies the older tradition of American pragmatism, which is ready and willing to extol an ideal of “excellence,” but emphasizes that each human pursuit has its own forms of excellence and defers any effort to put these many excellences in an encompassing order, let alone a hierarchy.
  • The idea of “critical thinking” as an educational end separable from any specific content. (Some of my recent comments on this have provoked some of the self-appointed champions of the critical-thinking doctrine to declare that I have it all wrong, but the record here pretty much speaks for itself. “Critical thinking” is the term of choice for explaining what a liberal-arts education accomplishes when its apologists can’t point to anything else. Yes, the term points back to a rich philosophical tradition starting with Socrates, but that tradition has little to do with today’s liberal-arts curriculum.)

I don’t mean this list to be exhaustive. The large forces also include institutional dynamics and market realities, and I wouldn’t want to leave out the antiphilosophical, postmodern temper of our times, in which the very idea of intellectual order is seen as an imposture or an exercise of domination by the powerful over the weak.

In truth, the “powerful” in contemporary higher education are those who prefer a curriculum that embodies no significant judgments along the lines that some subjects are more important than others. We live under the rule of happy fragmentation. The weak are those who believe this fragmentation shortchanges students.

Coming Soon

So what’s happened at CUNY?  The basic story is that, over widespread faculty opposition, the university administration is seeking to impose a “common core” on the university’s nineteen undergraduate colleges. The aim is to make it easier for underprepared graduates of community colleges to transfer their credits into the baccalaureate programs. The controversy at CUNY spotlights a collision between academic standards and the university’s emphasis on increasing graduation rates. I will take this up in part 2.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on December 15, 2011.

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