Seven Imaginary Curricula

Peter Wood

American higher education has long been blessed with the variety that comes from boldly innovative curricula. At least until recently. These days it seems the diversity of programs in American colleges and universities has leveled off.  Accreditors uncomfortable with quirky approaches and colleges anxious that courses be eligible for transfer credit have settled on curricular blandness.  Moreover, the thirty-year swing away from a core curriculum to more free-form elective systems and make-up-your-own-majors has taken its toll on colleges that offer highly structured approaches. They are forced to compete in a market where the usual college sales pitch is, “Have it your way.”  High school students have come to expect that college is an emporium of courses from which to choose, rather than a finely tuned system of requirements.

A few colleges, however, have quietly gone their own ways. Here are seven college curricula that you may not have heard of.

1.       Hulfish College, Massachusetts. The Herodotus Curriculum

Hulfish offers an unusual combination of courses on commerce, geography, language, culture, and history. The Hulfish ideal is a graduate who is at home in the larger world, has keen powers of observation, excellent skills with people, and who can speak well.  The model is the fifth century B.C. Greek merchant whose Histories of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks spreads out into an account of the whole ancient world.  Hulfish was originally founded as an undergraduate business school but adopted its distinctive approach in the 1970s under the direction of its then president, former shipping magnate, Kosta Cosmides. 

2.        Tappan Zee University, New York. The View-from-the-Bridge Curriculum

So-called “academic standards” are really just an expression of the preferences of the dominant social group and what counts as “knowledge” depends on who you are. Knowing depends on being, and being is shaped by race, gender, and class. Sound familiar? Those views are part of the common justification for politicizing the college curriculum. If all knowledge reflects someone’s group interests, why not teach a curriculum that reflects the interests of progressive ideologues, women, African-Americans, La Raza, etc.?  

Most colleges resist this fashionable epistemology when it comes to the natural sciences and a few colleges—too few—resist it altogether in favor of a traditional curriculum. Then there is Tappan Zee University, with its own professed “off-shore” curriculum. Tappan Zee’s main idea is that students ought to learn to see the big picture for themselves. To this end students are required to take a sequence of ten courses over four years (two each the first two semesters, one per semester after that) that moves from demandingly detailed surveys of history, biology, physics, philosophy (in the first year) to examinations of intellectual controversies (in the middle years), to senior-year projects in which students are required to synthesize their knowledge by presenting “as view from the bridge” on some disputed topic. 

Tappan Zee University requires as one of its terms for faculty appointment a pledge that a teacher will not reveal to students his own views on any matter under discussion in the curriculum, and to strive to present all sides of an academic debate transparently and without bias.   It is a demanding standard and often poses problems. (What happens when a student googles a faculty member’s writings and discovers his published views on a classroom topic?) But over the years Tappan Zee has succeeded in attracting a faculty that is passionately non-partisan. The curriculum includes some elements of Gerald Graff’s famous prescription to “teach the controversies,” but even here Tappan Zee goes its own way. “We want our students to understand the debates,” says academic dean Royce Perlinski, “but that doesn’t that we necessarily think the debates are the right track or that the truth lies in the middle. The truth often lies in something no one has thought of yet. We want our students’ minds open to the undiscovered possibilities.” 

3.        Aaron Burr College, Kentucky. The Bluegrass Curriculum

Like its better-known Kentucky neighbor Berea College, Aaron Burr College requires manual labor of all its students, and like Berea it mainly serves the Appalachian region. But there the resemblance ends. Aaron Burr offers a curriculum that in some respects looks like preparation for the life of an 18th century country squire. Students are required to take horsemanship, hunting, and to participate in activities meant to cultivate manners and taste. But Aaron Burr also has a serious academic curriculum centered on small business and financial management and estate planning. Students are also required to take courses in regional history and literature. Although Aaron Burr does enroll more than its share of the sons and daughters of wealthy families, it also has strong appeal to other students. Its alumni include numerous successful insurance and real estate brokers and small business entrepreneurs. The College sees its niche as “preparing students for the business of life.”  

4.       Cold Coast College, Oregon. The Mind-Body Curriculum

Cold Coast College sounds a bit like a holdover from the 1960s, perhaps a cross between the Easlin Institute and Evergreen College, with overtones of Eastern mysticism, free-form experimentation, and the search for self-fulfillment.  It’s all there, but Cold Coast also has a rigorous core curriculum based on the premise that, because mind and body are a profound unity, abstract ideas should only be approached through their material embodiments.  One result is that much of freshman year is devoted to laboratory science and Cold Coast courses in a wide range of subjects include computer simulations, game theory exercises, and engineering. 

There always was a nerdy strand in the New Age movement. The genius of Cold Coast College was to recognize this and then build a whole curriculum around it. It may be the only college left in the world where students still carry around slide rules—not because they lack calculators but because the slide rules are an elegant physical embodiment of abstract numerical relations. 

The College’s curriculum, however, shouldn’t be confused with a straight science and technology approach. Students, for example, are also required to take courses in drawing, sculpture, and singing, and the core includes a fairly hefty syllabus of literary and philosophical texts. Another one of the College’s pedagogical quirks is that students are supposed to read these texts aloud in small groups.   According to Cold Coast’s view, words spoken aloud in a group are more valuable to the student than individual silent reading.   

5.       Valdevia College, Missouri.   The Carved-in-Stone Curriculum

On the verge of insolvency in the 1980s, Valdevia College re-invented itself with the help of artist/entrepreneur Vincent Goriano. It traded in its old undistinguished liberal arts curriculum for Goriano’s vision of a program that would graduate skilled craftsmen and artists who also well-versed in classic works of religion, literature, and philosophy. Valdevia favors depth over breadth in almost everything. On the crafts side, for example, students have a three-semester requirement in stone carving, that includes not just design and technique but also such things as picking suitable quarries and working with galleries. On the intellectual side, students study the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Melville, and a handful of philosophical classics. Asked about the near exclusion of contemporary books and ideas, Valdevia’s president, Martha Clifford, explains, “We offer a distinctive program. Students who are eager to study the latest intellectual fads have lots of other options. Our goal is to give students who have a calling in the arts the kind of foundation in culture that will enhance their lives and their work for the long term. We also believe that the foundation we give our students is more than equal to the challenge of dealing with the contemporary world.”   

6.       Flintridge College, Ohio.   The Labyrinth Curriculum.

Flintridge markets its unusual approach with the tag, “It’s amazing!” Flintridge prepares students to be resourceful problem-solvers, and it believes that good problem-solving often involves retracing your steps and taking a fresh look at assumptions.   Each entering class is assigned a complex problem designed by the faculty that looks almost impossible to solve but that, the college says, students can answer if they stick with the curriculum for four years. (The college keeps the projects secret.) In principle the problem can be solved only by combining material from the college’s requirements in math, science, business, and the liberal arts. Most classes mix beginning and more advanced students, who typically take some courses twice, once at an introductory level and again when they are prepared to see more deeply into the subject.  The students are supposed to return to a course they have already taken with keener insight into the subject. Though clearly this is an educational model that is not for everyone, Flintridge College students and alumni are very enthusiastic about the curriculum.

7.       Tall Pines College, Virginia.   The Sophist Curriculum.

Tall Pines prides itself on being America’s only college devoted to the tradition of the ancient sophists. That’s right—the sophists, the enemies of Socrates and Plato; the sophists who favored rhetorical skill over the pursuit of truth. Sophistry has had bad press for the last 2,500 years, says President E. Horace Crabbe, III, but the faculty of Tall Pines are making a valiant effort to win respect for a curriculum that puts word power at the center of study. Students have a hefty eight-semester composition requirement, a similar requirement in spoken word arts, and must master three foreign languages. Students also take more ordinary-looking courses in Western civilization, literature, mathematics, and science, but these courses are all taught from the perspective of preparing students to make eloquent and convincing arguments. Not all Tall Pines graduates go to law school, but most do.   


* * *

One reason you may not have heard of any of these curricula is that Hulfish, Tappan Zee, Aaron Burr, Cold Coast, Valdevia, Flintridge, and Tall Pines don’t actually exist. For generations, American colleges and universities have enjoyed the freedom to devise their own programs.  We have had a historically unprecedented opportunity to create forms of college instruction that explore a wide variety of worthy approaches. But the barest handful of colleges has actually seized the opportunity to do something original. Think of St. John’s College in New Mexico and Maryland, Thomas Aquinas College in California, Landmark College in Vermont, Deep Springs College in Nevada, Cornell College in Iowa, and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Instead, the vast majority of colleges and universities huddle together around the same small cluster of themes: diversity, sustainability, race-gender-class, critical thinking, the information age, globalization, etc. The sameness of it all is a disappointment if not something worse—a squandering of hard-won intellectual and institutional freedom. 

Oddly, the promotional rhetoric of American higher education celebrates this dreary conformity as bold originality: ‘Come to X college and discover our unique approach to diversity, sustainability, race-gender-class, critical thinking, the information age, globalization, etc.’ ‘Y college prides itself on its unusual commitment to diversity, sustainability, race-gender-class, critical thinking, the information age, globalization, etc.’ ‘Z university is offers students a rare chance to explore diversity, sustainability, race-gender-class, critical thinking, the information age, globalization, etc.’ 

What image could do justice to this proud determination to be like everyone else? Is it fear of being left behind? Apprehension that anything too novel would scare away students?   Picture a landscape of crystal clear natural springs, and sparkling rivers, and fresh water lakes. Picture a rusty pump off on one side. Picture American colleges and universities crowding together and jostling one another to drink from the pump.  

I don’t know that any of the seven experimental curricula I have conjured would actually work, but I would personally prefer to give any of them a try before drinking from that pump.  

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