CUNY History Professor Urges Trustees: Preserve the Traditional Core

David Gordon

Editor's introduction: the following is an address by history professor David Gordon given to the City University of New York Board of Trustees at their open meeting on February 21, 2012. David Gordon is president of the New York Association of Scholars, a state affiliate of the NAS. His address concerns the implementation of the proposed "Pathways" initiative on curricular structure at CUNY. NAS president Peter Wood wrote about this initiative in "CUNY's Pathway to Whatever."

On Behalf of the New York Association of Scholars
The CUNY Association of Scholars

The City University, with the implementation of the new, minimalist core requirements, is about to take an historically catastrophic step. 

It is a tragedy. 

Strong language, no doubt.  But there is hardly any other way to characterize the abandonment of the traditional norms of liberal higher education in favor of what is something far less. 

Let me say at once that there is much about the Pathways proposal that is good.  The difficulties students have had in the past in transferring credits between branches of the City University was a problem that had to be addressed.  The Pathways solution is admirable. 

The other aspect of Pathways, in no way really related to the first, is not.  The deprivation of students of the advantages of a broadly based core curriculum, the traditional way in which students are provided a first rate liberal education, is fundamentally wrong. 

Tradition cannot be gainsaid.  It must not, in this case, be abandoned.  There is a reason that core curricula in most American institutions have been so broad.  It is no mere indulgence to allow students to experience a wide variety of disciplines before pursuing one with particular intensity.  It is one of the hallmarks that makes our higher educational system superior to the European, or any other.  

The creativity of American college graduates, so admired, and envied, in the rest of the world, is now being avidly pursued in the new emerging industrial superpowers, most especially China.  It is a creativity born out of a diversity of academic experience.  Creativity cannot be taught, but the environment in which it is nurtured can be created.  It can also be destroyed.  You cannot think creatively through a multiple of disciplines, unless you have some experience of them.  

The greatest glory of the City University up to now has been both its ability, and willingness, to provide its students, overwhelmingly first generation college entrants, with this very rich intellectual experience. 

You are now prepared to abandon that tradition, and so fundamentally debase a City University degree.  

I speak from personal experience.  Being the son of parents who never finished high school, my education through Brooklyn College’s broadly based curriculum was, without hyperbole, one of the very greatest experiences of my life, and something that has vastly enriched me for all of it.  My encounter with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my introductory Classics course, or Erwin Panofsky’s Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, in Art History, were profound, in some ways even life changing.  Yet I would never have encountered these things without the guidance provided by a broadly based common core.  I remain deeply grateful for the guidance it provided. 

As a history professor, I have committed my life to bringing that kind of experience, at least in my own discipline, to students at the City University. 

This is all now to be changed.  The new proposed common core is far too narrow.  

Whole disciplines worthy of study are now in danger of being largely ignored.  How can previously untutored students know the real joys of philosophy or classics unless they have had at least the smallest experience of them?  Even more remarkable is the ability of students under the new proposals to potentially avoid all instruction in foreign language.  And even if they are not seduced by these disciplines (and they are indeed very seductive), the stimulation of intellect that they provide will be with students throughout their lives.  I know this from personal experience.  I wish to preserve this kind of education for future generations. 

It is hard to understand where this initiative is coming from.  When Matthew Goldstein came to the Chancellorship of the University, he seemed determined to raise not only its reputation, but the actual content of instruction.  The elimination of remediation from the senior colleges, as well as his pledge to make what now has been almost the last ten years the decade of science, gave heart to all of us on the faculty who yearned for a return to CUNY’s glory days.  And while the ethnicity of the students may have changed, the desire of its best students to receive the kind of education that only a broadly based core can provide has not. 

The betrayal of these students is one of the worst aspects of the Pathways core.  Is the source of this the modest origins from which almost all City University students come?  Are all of the joys of a real liberal education now to be limited to the children of privilege in elite institutions? 

Or is this the result of pressing financial need?  It is certainly true that the City University is a victim of these straitened times. 

Or perhaps is it because of yet another motive - the need to create efficient workers narrowly tailored for the jobs of the future.  Certainly the economy is changing, and to a certain degree one must be practical.  Still, the recently reported Chancellor’s statements  that "all math students don't need to learn a foreign language," or his question, "if I'm an English major, why should I be forced to take a year of chemistry or a year of physics?" remind us that we might yet be going too far.  Chancellor Goldstein has also suggested that limiting general requirements will free students to take more high-level courses, and to explore other fields and interests.  Yet how can the Pathways core allow students to explore additional fields, when the whole purpose of a broader core is to do just that? 

In fact, we need more than well-trained workers.  We need creative thinkers, and not only from private institutions, but from great public universities like the City University of New York.  Creativity remains America’s greatest, and perhaps only, advantage in a rapidly changing economic world.  We must never forget that the most talented come from all strata of society.  Their potential must not be underestimated.  Their opportunities must not be restricted.  It is possible to be too hard nosed and too narrow in the name of practicality.  

Quite remarkably, many of the requests of the faculty in the face of these great curriculum changes are modest.  Almost too modest. 

The chief one is to abandon the procrustean bed of 30/42 credits that threatens to do  significant damage to even those disciplines still allowed in the new core in favor of some greater flexibility. 

Thus, leading members of the science faculties across the University have requested the life and physical sciences be given four to four and one-half credits, rather than three, and that the faculty at each college retain the right to determine the hours of lecture and laboratory in these general education courses.  They remind us that a three credit requirement not only fails to meet the nationwide norm for general education science courses, but also fails to recognize that many students switch to science based on their experience in the introductory courses’ laboratories.  There is also the danger that the reduced requirements will also seriously reduce the University’s ability to obtain grants to improve science education. 

The anxiety of the scientists is shared by others.  English professors, in particular writing instructors, are concerned that newly proposed composition courses will be allotted 25 to 40 percent less time than they now enjoy at many CUNY colleges.  Considering the many under prepared students entering the University, this reduction will hardly contribute to the more "rigorous" curriculum that is the most frequently proclaimed aim of the new core. 

Several things are therefore requested.  

First, that the core curriculum be enlarged to avoid the very real, and very great dangers, that the present proposal poses to the integrity of education at the City University.  

This would include increasing the number of hours assigned to science courses and English composition.  It would also include a course in American history, particularly appropriate considering very large number of immigrants in the student population.  Mandatory foreign language instruction in our increasingly globalized world is yet another necessity. 

Second, that there be some relenting of the inexplicable speed with which the core curriculum changes have been implemented. 

This might yet allow some additional time for reflection about the values of higher education, and how the core might yet be further modified to preserve those values. 

As it is, only the Board can yet slow what one fears is a juggernaut towards mediocrity, and worse.  

If there is no modification, the new core curriculum really will be the end of much of what has made the City University great.  That will be the legacy of the members of this Board.  It is impossible to believe that this is what any honorable, or even reasonable, person would want. 

Photo: Edifymusic, Flickr

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