Tag Archives: core

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.

The Perils of the “Common Reading” Assignment

Of the criticisms directed toward the contemporary academy, the charge of “indoctrination” strikes me as the most overhyped. The phenomenon certainly occurs; the most obvious recent example came in the “dispositions” controversy, when education students around the country could choose between agreeing with their professors’ political opinions and finding another career path. But it’s relatively rare to see professors browbeating students, in class, regarding overtly political matters.

Far more common–and pernicious–is the attempt (especially in the humanities and social sciences) to exclude topics on grounds of their “traditional” approach. Or the efforts, documented by FIRE, to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of association, and due process on campus. Or the financial impact of sprawling college bureaucracies, most notably those devoted to student life or to promoting certain types of “diversity.

Continue reading The Perils of the “Common Reading” Assignment

Lax? Couldn’t Be.

Harvard faculty maintain that additions to the courses that will fulfill General Education requirements (a replacement for the Core) are not growing easier.
Subcommittee chairs maintain that their standards have not grown too lax. Here’s a defense, reported in the Harvard Crimson:

Subcommittee chairs maintain that their standards have not grown too lax.
“I don’t think we’re becoming more lenient,” said W. James Simpson, chair of the Literature and Arts subcommittee.

Recent additions to the acceptable courses:

Folklore and Mythology 111: “Embodied Expression/Expressive Body: Dance in Cultural Context


Performance, Tradition and Cultural Studies: An Introduction to Folklore and Mythology

Read on for some additional “not too lax” means to fufilll requirements.

Replacing The Harvard Core

Harvard is replacing its “core” (a somewhat shaggy assortment of distribution requirements, in fact) with a set of “Program in General Education” guidelines. The program seeks to “connect a student’s liberal education.. to life beyond college.” It mandates one letter-graded half courses in each of eight categories: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Culture and Belief; Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning; Ethical Reasoning; Science of Living Systems; Science of the Physical Universe; Societies of the World; and United States in the World.

As of Wednesday, the Program In General Education list now includes 51 classes, most of which seem pretty substantive. Many are modish in predictable inter-disciplinary ways, but most seem to concern serious reading. It’s certainly possible to put together a serious set of classes. All of the Math, Science, and Ethics classes look serious. There appear to be substantive offerings in each of the other fields. A pretty substantive set of classes can be selected to fulfill the other requirements. Here’s an example (categories first, classes second):

Aesthetic And Interpretive Understanding:
Poetry In America
Culture And Beliefs: For the Love of God and His Prophet:
Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures
Societies of the World:
Germany In The World 1600-2000

America In The World:

Pursuits Of Happiness: Ordinary Lives In Colonial America

Continue reading Replacing The Harvard Core

Educating for Citizenship at Brown University: An Essay In Honor Of Allan Bloom

Brown University has been described as providing “the worst education in America.” Brown’s New Curriculum, far from requiring that students read a list of Great Books, has no core of any kind. Brown students are free to “shop” their courses and take only the ones they like. Brown’s libertarian attitude toward curricular structure no doubt influences the sort of courses that wind up being taught at the place.

Consider the goings-on in a course that has become popular at Brown in recent years. On the first day of this course, the instructor informs the delighted students that it is fine with him if they never attend another lecture during the semester. He admits that he would like them to attend their weekly discussion sections, but he assures them that they need not worry about being lectured at there: the sections in this course are conducted as student-led seminars, with the graduate teaching assistants instructed to refrain from interrupting the student’s musings in any way. There are weekly writing assignments in the course, but students are always free to write about topics that happen to interest them rather than the topic that was assigned. The syllabus indicates that the course includes a midterm, but the professor hastens to set them at ease about that. To the sound of cheers, he tells them that they may adjust the details of the questions so as to better display their own strengths and interests. He promises them in any case that their exams never will be evaluated in terms of how well the essays they write happen to fit with the questions that he (the professor) asks on the exam. Instead, each exam essay is to be evaluated simply “on its own terms.” This course concludes with a final exam sternly stipulating that students compose an essay in response to one of three questions. But the last question turns out to be: “3. Write a question about any author you have read, argument you have heard, or any idea that has occurred to you during this course. Now, answer it.”

I first read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind twelve years ago, the year I began teaching at Brown. By the time I reached page 63 and read the sentence beginning “Education for our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion…”, I was enchanted. Bloom’s claim that there was a great wound lying unattended to at the soul of the university, a wound of emptiness endured without understanding by recent generations of students, resonated profoundly with my own earlier experiences as a professor at a number of what Bloom calls “the 20 or 30 best universities”. Perhaps because I had studied classics as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Bloom’s prescription by book’s end – a return to “the good old Great Books approach” (334) – completed the spell. At last, someone had brilliantly grasped and confidently expressed worries that many of us had long but dimly harbored about the enterprise of education in America. Here was a champion worth backing.

Continue reading Educating for Citizenship at Brown University: An Essay In Honor Of Allan Bloom