More Decline in the U. of Chicago Core

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Five years ago, I told the sad tale of curricular decline at the University of Chicago, whose core curriculum changes had met widespread national criticism ten years earlier. I am disappointed to report that the university’s offerings have declined further since 2009.

The University of Chicago’s Core was once the gold standard in higher education. Though it went through many changes, when it was at its best, world-class scholars provided undergraduates with general and liberal learning that not only prepared them for the cultural challenges of their time and developed their own intellectual and other human powers, but also engaged them in the great transgenerational conversations about self, society, world, nature, and the ultimate things and goods. As former dean of the College Donald N. Levine has outlined in Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America (University of Chicago Press, 2006), intense scholarly and practical conversation informed the changes, and generally the College could explain to students what they were in for and why.

In the 1999 curriculum, however, the Core was reduced from 21 to 15 quarters’ worth of courses (18 without passing a foreign language test) or even fewer using Advanced Placement credits, and not counting the personal fitness requirement. An educational rationale for reducing requirements was provided belatedly and unconvincingly through the dean’s revisionist history of the College, which somehow demonstrated that the cuts were the inevitable unfolding of the progress of the College’s traditions. Meanwhile, the common understanding across campus was that the College wanted to become more “fun” with less of a reputation for difficult courses and egghead students, with more time available for electives and concentrations (soon to be called “majors” to get with the mainstream) and study abroad, so that the College could attract more applicants and enroll more undergraduates who would bring much-desired tuition.

Slouching in the Humanities 

University of Chicago students must take at least two quarters of a humanities sequence, down from three quarters in 1998. A sequence is a set of courses spanning multiple quarters, intended to serve as a coherent multi-quarter focus of study. Yet, with six sequences to choose from, the College’s message was that no particular knowledge of the humanities was worth having, so long as one spent close to half a year learning something or other.

At the time critics worried that students would take the easy way out and opt out of the third quarter of their sequences. This prediction came to pass rather quickly. Ten years later, by 2007-08, the retention rate into the third quarter had fallen to 53% from fall to spring. In 2012-13, using the most recent data available, the retention rate is now 35% from winter to spring. While 1,554 students by my count were taking humanities core courses in Winter 2013, only 546 enrolled in the third quarter of their sequences in Spring 2013.

Which sequences are students choosing? Now that courses are effectively capped at 19 students, it has become more difficult to assess student demand. The College’s choice of how many sections of each sequence to offer has become an increasingly significant factor.

In fall 2007, 17 sections of the flagship humanities sequence, Human Being and Citizen, served 337 students for 27% of the total humanities core population. In fall 2009, there were 15 sections serving 288 or 23% of students. In the most recent data–Winter 2014–the proportion is down to 19%, or 272 students in 15 sections. Even so, Human Being and Citizen (HBC) remains the most popular sequence.

HBC also has the most interest when comparing class size with its strongest competitor, Readings in World Literature (RWL). While both sequences have 15 sections, average class size in HBC is 18 while that of RWL is only 15. Reading Cultures is all but maxed out, although the College has only offered ten sections. Other sequences average 17 or 18, with the exception of Greek Thought and Literature at 13, which is a great opportunity for class discussion, and the new sequence Introduction to the Humanities, which is meant for advanced writers and has good reason to be small.

Five years ago, the three best choices in core humanities–HBC, Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities, and Greek Thought and Literature–taught about 58% of students. Today, those courses teach only 45%. The sequence Media Aesthetics is a big winner in comparison to five years ago, with 217 students in Winter 2014 compared with 153 before. Language and the Human also has gained about 50 students.

What are the academic tradeoffs? Well, compare the course description for HBC–

Socrates asks, “Who is a knower of such excellence, of a human being and of a citizen?” We are all concerned to discover what it means to be an excellent human being and an excellent citizen, and to learn what a just community is. This course explores these and related matters, and helps us to examine critically our opinions about them. To this end, we read and discuss seminal works of the Western tradition, selected both because they illumine the central questions and because, read together, they form a compelling record of human inquiry. [Genesis, Plato, Sophocles, Homer, Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Kant, Melville, and American political and literary documents.

with that for Media Aesthetics–

Our central questions include: What is the relation between media and various kinds of art? Can artistic uses of media be distinguished from non-artistic uses? What is the relation between media and human sensations and perceptions? How do media produce pity, fear, or pleasure? Do we learn new ways of seeing and hearing through the devices involved in painting, photography, music, and cinema? What happens when we adapt or translate objects into other media: painting into photography, writing into film, or music into video? This [is] not a course in “media studies” in any narrow sense. It is rooted in a broad range of criticism and philosophy by such writers as Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Bazin, Derrida, Mulvey, Baudrillard, and Barthes.

A student should ponder his choices carefully before jumping into one of the eight humanities options mentioned above. And whereas there was once some hope that students could share a common literary vocabulary as they debated great issues of self and society, that educational and humanistic goal disappeared long ago, now fragmented into eight different, if only slightly overlapping, conversations.

Civilizational Slouching 

One feature of my tale in 2009 was the decline of the Civilizations sequence, which now has further slouched. Then, I focused on the upstart course “Colonizations.” Rather than “provide an in-depth examination of the development and accomplishments of one of the world’s great civilizations through direct encounters with significant and exemplary documents and monuments,” as the university advertises, “Colonizations”

approaches the concept of civilization from an emphasis on cross-cultural/societal connection and exchange. We explore the dynamics of conquest, slavery, colonialism, and their reciprocal relationships with concepts such as resistance, freedom, and independence, with an eye toward understanding their interlocking role in the making of the modern world.

Today, the new two-quarter option “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations” looks even worse, considering the university’s own standard that a Civilizations sequence examines one great civilization by offering students deep encounters with significant and exemplary documents. The goal of this course, in contrast, is merely “to expand students’ exposure to an array of texts–theoretical, historical, religious, literary, visual–that address the fundamental place of gender and sexuality in the social, political, and cultural creations of different civilizations.”

The first quarter “offers a theoretical framing unit” (it is unclear whether other theoretical frames are allowed in this course) “that introduces concepts in feminist, gender, and queer theory,” and it adds two “thematic clusters,” one called “Kinship” and the other called “Creativity and Cultural Knowledge”:

The “Kinship” cluster includes readings on such topics as marriage, sex and anti-sex, love and anti-love, and reproduction. The “Creativity and Cultural Knowledge” cluster addresses the themes of authorship and authority, fighting and constructing the canon, and the debates over the influence of “difference” on cultural forms.

By some miracle, however, students read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. A third required text is Monsieur Venus: A Materialist Novel which, though it was published in 2004, apparently makes the cut as a significant or exemplary civilizational document.

The second quarter focuses on “activism/movement politics and women’s rights as human rights and the question of universalism,” it “contextualizes gender and sexuality through examinations of a variety of religious laws and teachings, religious practices, and religious communities,” and then, under the rubric “economics,” the course “looks at slavery, domestic service, prostitution as labor, consumption, and the gendering of labor in contemporary capitalism.”

No miracle of cultural monuments appears in the second quarter, however: The required readings include such world classics as Ehrenrich’s Nickel and Dimed and two apparently still relevant works of Foucault. The course does, to be sure, reach quite far back into literary history with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Sad to say, the University of Chicago is proud of this course, heralding the effort of “faculty from several different departments” who “met six times” to develop the syllabus.

Culture of a sort, this course offers. An in-depth examination of a great world civilization via great works? Not even close.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the University of Chicago’s vaunted sequence, History of Western Civilization? The history faculty all but killed it in 2002, replacing almost every section with two new sequences, one called “History of European Civilization” and one called “Ancient Mediterranean World.” By 2009, Western Civ was down to a single over-subscribed section of 26 students. Today, the demand remains: Katy Weintraub took 35 students into her Fall 2013 course, of whom 34 remain.

There is also a summer version of the course. Last summer 21 students entered the course, but only 17 took the second part and just 11 stayed through the third part.

European Civ is about as it was five years ago with 10 sections, probably the most popular sequence. Ancient Mediterranean World had 76 students five years ago, then 42 in Fall 2012, and it seems to have been abandoned this year. Colonizations, for its part, remains small with 66 students across four sections.

All told, one need not despair to enter the University of Chicago if one wants to learn a great deal about Western civilization–or, at least, some pieces of it. Read, for instance, what students are writing as they take a course for advanced undergraduates (not part of any Civilization sequence), Core Values of the West, whose course description promises:

This course examines the fundamental values of liberal Western democracies, including freedom of speech and religion, equality under law, individual autonomy, religious toleration, and property rights. We consider what these values mean, their historical origins and development, and debates about them in theory and in practice.

Now that’s a course to which I would send thoughtful undergraduates.

Core Social Sciences 

In 1999, a three-quarter requirement in social sciences remained intact. In 2009 and today, five options have been available:

  • Self, Culture, and Society – 30 sections this year
  • Power, Identity, and Resistance – 25 sections
  • Classics of Social and Political Thought (CSPT) – 16 sections
  • Mind – 8 sections
  • Social Science Inquiry – 5 sections

The academic tradeoffs? Compare, for example, the course description for CSPT–

What is justice? What makes a good society? This sequence examines such problems as the conflicts between individual interest and common good; between morality, religion, and politics; and between liberty and equality. … Writing before our departmentalization of disciplines, they [Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, and Weber] were at the same time sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, economists, and moralists; they offer contrasting alternative conceptions of society and politics that underlie continuing controversies in the social sciences and in contemporary political life.

with that for Self, Culture, and Society–

Particular emphasis is given to the modern world’s social-economic structure and issues of work, the texture of time, and economic globalization [via Smith, Marx, and Weber]. Winter quarter focuses on the relation of culture, social life, and history [via Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Sahlins, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno, “and other anthropologists and cultural theorists”] …. In spring, we concern ourselves with the question of how personhood is constructed socially, culturally, and historically. Our considerations include issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic identity, through the study of the wide range of approaches found in the works of Freud, Mauss, Mead, Marcuse, Vygotsky, de Beauvoir, Fanon, and others.

Three out of the five sequences mention Karl Marx in their descriptions; one mentions Milton Friedman. I leave it to the reader to evaluate the descriptions in context. And just as in the humanities, SoSC, as it is called, provides a fragmented, often politicized, often alienating introduction to the best (and much else) that has been thought and said through social studies.

Slouching in the Sciences: ‘Global Warming’

The rejuvenation of the College’s core curriculum in 1984 led to three different two-year sequences integrating the sciences–six quarters for each option. Curricular evolution did not favor them. By 1999, Form and Function in the Natural World had become a five-quarter sequence; so had Evolution of the Natural World. Form and Function disappeared in 2004, and the third of the longstanding sequences, Environmental Sciences, went extinct in 2005. By then, Evolution in the Natural World was down to four courses, where it remains today.

Science majors are more likely to take the regular sequences in physics, chemistry, and biology. But if you’re a non-major, your options in the physical sciences are, in their entirety, these:

  • Ice-Age Earth and Environmental History of the Earth
  • Ice-Age Earth and Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast
  • Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast and Chemistry and the Atmosphere
  • Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast and Natural Hazards
  • Chemistry and the Atmosphere and Environmental History of the Earth
  • Foundations of Modern Physics I; Everyday Physics
  • Stellar Astronomy and Astrophysics; The Origin of the Universe and How We Know

It is hard to miss the particular slant the University of Chicago has on the importance of “global warming.” I hope these courses offer sufficient skill in critical thinking that students learn the scientific difference between a fact and a “forecast.”

Students also must take one or two quarters’ worth of computer science, mathematics, or statistics, a requirement that has changed very little over the years.

Literally Slouching

Beginning in 2012, physical education became optional. No longer must students demonstrate a minimum level of personal fitness, nor must they show that they can swim. Furthermore, athletics courses are so optional that they do not count toward the degree or even toward the minimums needed for part-time or full-time student status.

Conclusion: Looking Backward, 2024-2014

Imagine the year 2024, forty years after the bold curricular vision of the University of Chicago’s Project 1984. What resources will the University of Chicago have to offer when it is time for the next curricular changes?

What will the university have to show for 25 years of its decreasingly meaningful core curriculum?

What will the university have produced over 25 years to move the ball forward in terms of a rationale for general education, liberal education, or higher education at all?

Will John Boyer, dean of the College for unprecedented numbers of terms, who has presided over all of the slouching since the 1990s, remain to follow where culture has led, rather than to lead?

Will the “global warming” courses be a dire necessity or an old joke about the politicized academy, which certain humanities and social science professors will analyze in their own courses?

(Photo: University of Chicago. Credit: UChicago.)

Adam Kissel

Adam Kissel

Adam Kissel is an independent scholar living in Arlington, Virginia.

11 thoughts on “More Decline in the U. of Chicago Core

  1. I went through the Core program, at the University of Chicago, in the late 1950s. This program indulged in no specialized training, no pick-and-choose consumerism, no submersion in data! It sure cured me of suburban provincialism in an intense pair of years, and it helped us frame our subsequent professional educations and careers. For example, by dropping me into the depths of “our” canon of great texts, this program prepared me for studying “Critical Theory” — well, let’s say, critically …. So there’s a problem here of “organizing knowledge,” to cite the title of one old Core course: where to put the horse? where, the wagon?

  2. The aforementioned global warming classes were half of the PhySci classes that I took at UChicago. Quite unlike, say, the economics classes that I also took (and apparently any science or religion classes the author took), the classes were (a) taught by Nobel laureates, and (b) included rigorous inquiry about how the science worked, and ample opportunity for students to interpret data and models in our own ways.

    That was several years ago, and alas the model predictions from then have so far come to pass.

  3. Great article! Anyone who has undergone instruction in the Great Books by a gifted teacher knows the value of that type of education. That the tide of critical theory has swept away what little there ever was of this educational philosophy is no surprise. Read John Ellis’s “Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities” for a powerful account of how our modern universities have declined.

  4. What a lot of hand-wringing!

    There are many paths to discussing the great ideas and having a great conversation. Not everyone is ready for reading the greatest works at age 18-22. It’s better to get them thinking about these ideas and let them come to great works later than to have them read books they aren’t ready for.

    As for the science core, I recall many classmates who hated science and couldn’t learn it no matter how diluted their courses were. The proper approach should be not to graduate them. However, in case that’s not an option, global warming seems like an easy way for them to get some taste of science and the scientific method. It will also challenge their anti-science mentality and possibly open their mind. Naturally, anyone with some ability will want to avoid those courses.

  5. The author obviously does not know anything about the University of Chicago or the history of the Common Core. The author does not seem to know anything about critical thinking either as he seems to already know the right answer about everything, and the right answer is always whatever the conservative mainstream believes. I can tell you this: such “thinking” would be maimed by UC freshmen.

    I wonder whether the author has actually read Marx? It seems not if he tries to put Milton Friedman on par with him. (And this is so even if one disagrees with Marx and agrees with Friedman.) I can’t resist one more comment: everyone I know who has read Marx in multiple classes at UC is more critical of him, not less, but that does not lessen his importance. The author of this article seems to think that people can’t be trusted to think and make up their own mind about things, so they should only be allowed to read “acceptable” books, in the best tradition of autocratic regimes around the world.

    On the particular courses, the author supports his thesis that UC is on a downward trajectory by criticizing Self Culture and Society. A curious choice of target: that sequence is at least 35 years old. And had the author actually attended some of these courses, like Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities, he would know that two quarters of analytic philosophers trying to do literary criticism is more than enough.

    Is the UC declining? I don’t know. It has been several decades since I attended. But I can guarantee that this essay would have been sent back by any professor I had and the student asked to do his own thinking rather than depend on preconceived ideas.

  6. A perfectly straight-forward article which makes an unexceptional point is attacked on the grounds that it does not honor the very changes it is bemoaning. Oh yes, and “man-made global warming” is “popular.”
    As a matter of fact, Darth, the climate scientists do pull their “hockey sticks” out of thin air. And that air is the same temperature it was seventeen years ago when we were solemnly assured by these same scientists that the land masses would be swamped within a decade.
    So, my first thought, as an (admittedly) old UVA grad, is to suppose that hilarious but unintentional self-satire is the admission price to a contemporary college education.

  7. U of C has been turning out good little socialists who are prepared to believe anything for about 30 years. I’m not surprised that they are changing the core to reflect the ‘new think’ of people who believe in man-made global warming and then swerve to accept that maybe the science is more about climate change instead of warming just because the evidence fails to back up the claims. However, as the commenter above noted, they are doing rock solid business attracting the best and brightest students who believe passionately in nuclear power and tribalism.
    If the future wasn’t interesting, who would go there?

  8. Acceptance rate shows mainstreaming rather than uniqueness. Joining the Common App made the university common instead of uncommon and dramaticly increased applications.

  9. When a parent pays $45K a year in tuition to educate their child at an institution, they expect the University to
    1) expand their child’s critical thinking skills
    2) Make them better global citizens
    3) Give them the tools to be successful in TODAY’s world
    4) Do the above in an environment that makes education enjoyable
    The author in his “slouching” framework could have done a better job at illustrating why changes in the “core curriculum” as he sees it fails students on these fronts. Instead he seems to bemoan some “nostalgic bygone era”, leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling about the real motivation of his article.
    As an example, I found the author’s particular distaste towards the “importance given to Global warming” puzzling and disconcerting.
    In a country where there is an active campaign to deny “human induced climate change” thru FUD and where “benefits of a warming world” is presented as the main menu in some Congressional circles and media, it becomes very important for an elite institution of learning like the UofC to set the record straight on the facts, specially because if humanity gets this wrong, nothing else will really matter.
    And what’s the author trying to suggest with the jab, “I hope these courses offer sufficient skill in critical thinking that students learn the scientific difference between a fact and a “forecast”
    Is he implying that current climate model forecasts are pulled out of thin air by climate scientists without any basis in fact? and that the UofC will present these models to students without critical examination?
    That single line seems to indicate that the author is not really mourning the “decline of UofC’s core”; he is upset that “UofC courses don’t reflect his unique political, cultural and scientific views anymore, but are now reflecting views that he personally finds abhorrent” although I cannot be sure of it, since the whole article is cleverly written to disguise its true intentions.
    My most generous take on the author’s point of view would be to perceive what the author calls “Slouching” as “bringing relevance back to the core”

  10. Yes, look at the results. Chicago now has many more applicants AND the SAT scores of the their undergraduates have gone from being merely good to being among the best in the country AND their acceptance rate has gone, as far as I can tell, from a mediocre 40% to something like 8%.
    Like it or not, the best students were shunning Chicago largely because of their core program as it was then constituted. Chicago, noted for its free economics, at least at one time, is finally passing the market test in recruiting topnotch students!
    As for the science courses for non-majors (uh, formerly, non-concentrators): it looks like the usual rocks and stars; chemistry and society — morphed into environment; basic physics and the everyday world. Plus a good helping of global warming.
    Looks to me — hard to judge from outside, but this is my guess — that global warming is popular. Probably these course need to attract sufficient students to be financially viable. Again, looks like Chicago is looking to the market.
    All of this may be wonderful or deplorable, but this is what “sells” these days to top students.

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