There’s good news coming out of the state of Georgia’s public universities. The University System of Georgia, which sets standards for the state’s 35 public colleges, recently jettisoned its controversial top-down plan to replace its core-curriculum requirements for undergraduates with a vaguely defined interdisciplinary program that was supposedly aimed at training students to live in a globalized economy but, as the 400 Georgia faculty members who signed a petition protesting the changes pointed out, would have ensured that Georgia college students didn’t learn much, whether about the global economy or anything else..
In more good news, the University of Georgia, the state system’s flagship institution in Athens, is acting on its own to revamped its own core curriculum – called its “general education core” – to require more courses in the hard sciences, especially the physical sciences, and fewer in the social sciences. The latter, especially anthropology, have grown increasingly fuzzier and politicized over the years as they have become increasingly infused with postmodernist assumptions about the un-knowability of truth.
Georgia’s public universities, like most other colleges and universities in America these days, don’t really have anything that can be described as a core curriculum in the traditional sense: a series of lower-level courses that all undergraduates are required to take, involving their all reading the same books and thus establishing a community of shared knowledge and cultural references. In times past it was not unusual for colleges to require their freshmen and sophomores to take a year of history of Western civilization plus two years of hard sciences and a year of advanced-level math or foreign languages – plus a few introductory humanities courses that focused on the classics. That meant that nearly all college students got exposed to, say, Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Antigone. Nowadays, however, the phrase “core curriculum” at most universities, including those in the Georgia system, means a minimal set of “distribution” requirements, in which students can select, say, any two courses from a vast, nearly random array of science, language, and humanities offerings. As might be expected, students in Georgia and elsewhere tend to gravitate toward the “twofer” a single course that fulfils two distribution requirements, such as, for example, a semester of Chinese history, which would count as both a history course and a course in a non-Western culture (the latter is a popular distribution category on diversity-conscious campuses these days).
That sounds like a recipe for spotty education – but leave it to ideology-obsessed academic bureaucrats in the Georgia state system to to make it even spottier. At a hastily convened February 2008 retreat in Athens, a group of faculty members and administrators deemed that Georgia’s current distribution requirements – which at least require students to obtain some grounding in the hard sciences and math in order to graduate– failed to instill sufficient “global” awareness. The committee proposed that the current basic requirements be scrapped in favor of two global-happy interdisciplinary “theme” courses of study. One would be called “Framing Worldviews in a Global Environment,” and would contain such gobbledygook-rich areas of emphasis as “Addressing Global Issues with Sustainable Responses” and “Understanding Self, Others, and Society.” The other, titled “From Self to Global Society,” would focus on “Aesthetics in Cultural Contexts” and “Quantitative Thinking, Self and Society.” Instead of the traiditional freshman writing course, there would be something called “WOVEN Communication” (the acronym stands for “written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal” and is the latest buzzword in the college-composition community).
Not surprisingly, hundreds of Georgia faculty members, especially those in the sciences, whose input had never been sought as to the wisdom of these proposed sweeping changes, staged a revolt, contending that the new requirements were “nebulous” (as one professor put it) and would likely give students fewer rather than more educational skills necessary to compete in a globalized economy. In late April he chancellor’s office for the Georgia system announced that the top-down curriculum overhaul was dead.
Meanwhile, in early May the University of Georgia’s senate approved changes in its core curriculum that, while not returning it to traditional parameters, would certainly make it more rigorous. For example, while undergraduates would still be required to take only two semester-long science courses, one of those courses would have to be in the physical sciences (chemistry, physics, and so forth) rather than the less difficult life sciences. They would also have to complete two semesters of quantitative reasoning, not one, as in the current system. Other curriculum-tinkering would encourage them to take more language courses in order to fulfill humanities requirements, and the number of mandatory social-science courses would fall from four to three. The proposed new system, which awaits approval by the statewide board of regents, isn’t perfect. As the National Association of Scholars has pointed out, there is still a lot of “global” and “diversity” talk accompanying it. Yet it does make a serious effort to increase the substantive knowledge of U. of Georgia graduates, especially with respect to the crucial scientific and quantitative skills that actually make a difference in a global economy.