Tag Archives: general education

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail


argued yesterday that the Common
Core State Standards Initiative
(CCSSI) is both necessary and a good
thing–but I must add that it just can’t work now.

It has the potential
to transform American K-12 education, but the plain fact is that it is destined
to fail because current teacher education programs neither prepare nor equip
grade school and high school teachers to teach the Standards.


Whether students
learn–and what they learn–depends largely upon what happens inside the
classroom as they and their teachers interact over the curriculum. “Skillful
teaching,” write Deborah
Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani
, “can make the difference
between students being at the top of the class or the bottom, completing high
school or dropping out.”

Continue reading Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail

Common Core Standards Can Save Us

reading anderson.gif


It’s no secret that
most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year
college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion
annually, the Associated
recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT
college entrance exam
showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates
was ready for the first year of college.

Continue reading Common Core Standards Can Save Us

ACTA Examines General Education Requirements

ACTA has published its 2011-2 edition of What Will They Learn?, a study that examines, in basic terms, what 1007 colleges and universities around the country require from their students. The entire study is worth reading–and features an easy-to-use website–but I consider two aspects of ACTA’s findings particularly significant.

First, military academies fare quite well in ACTA’s study. Army and Air Force both require courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, math, science, and economics; Navy requires all of these subjects except for economics. Somewhat surprisingly, given their mission, none of the three require foreign language study, but otherwise all three provide a quality liberal arts fare.

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The Usual Suspects Attack a Reformer

Today’s New York Post features a strong editorial praising the work of CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, whose record of improving quality over the past decade is virtually unparalleled among university heads nationally.

The Chancellor’s proposal, called Pathways, seeks to establish common general-education requirements at CUNY’s senior and community colleges, largely to smooth the transfer process for students who enter CUNY at the community college level. As the Post notes, in different hands, this concept might lead simply to lowering standards across the board, but Goldstein can be trusted,” given his record. “His critics, by contrast, include many of the same faculty who stood foursquare against the hike in standards. This time around, they seek to protect pay and perks: The more pointless low-level courses that are required, the more jobs for them. They were wrong on open admissions. And they are wrong now.”

The Chancellor’s proposal has the potential to be a win-win arrangement for all concerned. For community college students, the idea will smooth the transfer process and facilitate development of a truly integrated university. For the university, a slight reduction in senior-college general education courses (for which community college students will receive transfer credit) likely will mean that most students have a higher percentage of their classes taught by full-time faculty at the senior college level. And, as the Post editorial notes, the Chancellor hopes that the university-wide faculty disciplinary committees that his proposal envisions will improve standards at community colleges.

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‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

humanities.bmpCollege foreign language and literature programs have been in decline for some time, first shrinking, then being consolidated with other departments, and now in a growing number of cases actually closed down. But the recent decision to eliminate French, Italian, Russian and Classics at SUNY Albany appears to have struck a nerve, and caused an outcry: “Defend the Humanities!”
It’s a cry that has been heard many times in the past. As the segment of the university that has no direct link to a career-providing profession, the humanities have regularly been called upon to justify their usefulness, but the justification is easy to make, and it is an honorable one that instantly commands respect.
The case generally goes like this: exposure to the best of our civilization’s achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

Continue reading ‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

Shaky New Standards for College Readiness

A mesmerizing phrase regularly rolls off the tongues of education experts these days. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used it in a recent speech to the National Conference of State Legislators, saying that Common Core’s new standards will try to make certain that high school graduates are truly “college- and career-ready.” Sounds impressive, but he never said what the phrase means.
Duncan’s silence on specifics is not surprising. In the final version of the standards released on June 2, Common Core itself (an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) made no effort to explain what precisely college and career readiness mean in math or English language arts. Nor did it provide evidence to support the standards or to demonstrate that they were internationally benchmarked. It cagily noted that it “consulted,” was “informed by,” or made “careful use of” research studies, evidence, and international data. As the National Council of Teachers of English noted in a review of a July 2009 draft version of these CCRS, “the document presently contains a claim that these standards are evidence-based, but we note that none of the evidence has been drawn from peer-reviewed research journals or similar sources. Rather, the evidence offered at present consists of surveys conducted by the testing companies that stand most immediately to gain from the testing of these standards. This seems to represent a conflict of interest in the development of the standards.” Nevertheless, over 35 state boards of education–all presumably guardians of the public interest–have voted to adopt all its standards word for word, some before they ever saw the final version.
This is not the first time the public has been enticed into purchasing a pig in a poke (think School-to-Work or small high schools). And it won’t be the last; friends of “21st century skills” hawkers are now working full-speed to get them to the head of the line at the public trough. But given the staggering educational implications and costs of requiring all high schools to ensure that every student they graduate is college-ready (a U.S. Department of Education proposal for the next authorization of No Child Left Behind), one might have expected a few state board members to ask for answers about the nature of this pig. Few if any countries expect all 18-year-olds to meet the same set of academic standards–high or low–as if there were no differences in young adolescents’ interests, skills, and abilities or in the requirements of varied occupational training programs or types of post-secondary institutions.

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An Open Letter to New Professors

Dear Assistant Professor:
Congratulations on your new job! Whether you’re a visiting professor or on the tenure-track, consider yourself among of the lucky. As someone who ran the academic treadmill for eight years—I taught at a community college, at two four-year liberal arts colleges, and at a state university until I landed a permanent position at a private university, where I am also Director of General Studies—I can appreciate your accomplishment more than most. Like many in the profession, I went to graduate school bushy-eyed and idealistic (a real-life Mr. Smith goes to Washington) so that I could become a professor and continue thinking about important questions. I wanted to inspire others to think about big ideas and to experience the transformative power of liberal education, as my professors had done for me.
Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that teaching is not that important. It won’t get you a job, and it certainly won’t get you tenure or promoted, even at most so-called “teaching colleges.” Chances are that it will not be as intellectually stimulating as you expect, and that after doing it for a few years you will become frustrated if not disillusioned or burnt out. Most college students believe that education is an entitlement and only care about grades and getting a degree. They are indifferent to courses that don’t bear on their majors or won’t help them get a job or into graduate or professional school. Having been coddled by parents at home and by teachers in grade school and high school, they are demanding, think they have a right to your total attention, and believe that you must always be there for them.
Most of your colleagues will see undergraduate teaching as a burden to escape from whenever possible, but one that must be endured because it’s their bread and butter, their meal ticket to do research, which is what they really care about. Research leads to publications, and publications to tenure and promotion and to advancement and recognition in the profession. No one ever gets rich or famous being a teacher. So they exploit the system and resent their students for not taking their courses seriously and interfering with their work. No college or university today, let alone any department, would proclaim what the University of Chicago proudly proclaimed at the beginning of last century: “We come to teach.” Professors who come to teach today do so at their peril.
Unfortunately academics don’t seem to care how this attitude affects undergraduate teaching and liberal education as a whole. It was, I think, William James who first warned about its corrosive effect more than a hundred years ago. In his essay, “The PhD Octopus,” James describes how a brilliant student of Philosophy in the Harvard Graduate School took a job as a teacher of English Literature at a sister-college. When the governors of the college discovered that he didn’t have his PhD, he was told that he must get the degree or the appointment would be revoked. The quality of the man and his ability to teach literature meant nothing to the school; the PhD meant everything. The college wanted to see those three magical letters behind the young professor’s name. James understood that the PhD, relatively new in his day, was created to stimulate original research and scholarship proper; but he also understood that the fetish for this “sacred appendage” was a “Mandarin disease” that would lead to “academic snobbery” in the profession. “Will any one pretend that its possessor will be successful as a teacher?” The whole thing, he adds, “is a sham, a bauble, a dodge whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.”

Continue reading An Open Letter to New Professors

ACTA & Its Critics

ACTA’s new, expanded survey of college general education requirements has earned justified praise. Here’s Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker, from her column this Sunday: “The study and Web site do fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices. As a consequence, colleges and universities may be forced to examine their own responsibility in molding an educated, well-informed citizenry.”
ACTA’s guide is so significant because it provides an easy-to-use, easy-to-compare, and easily accessible portal of the general education requirements at 700 institutions. This information should be the starting point for parents as they consider where to send their sons or daughters—and it also should be a prime piece of data for alumni and trustees as they evaluate the state of their institutions. Sure, this information was previously available. But too often colleges and universities go out of their way to bury curricular material in ways to frustrate those eager for sunlight on college campuses.
A good sign of the importance of ACTA’s work comes in the fury that the study has aroused from defenders of the academic status quo. In particular, the AAC&U, the organization that has distinguished itself for its relentless assault on quality—in the name of “diversity”—in higher education, belittled ACTA’s efforts.

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Building a Curriculum Around a Plane Crash

My last post looked at the latest troubling educational initiative from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). The organization is especially pernicious not simply because of its agenda—which is, after all, quite mainstream in the contemporary academy. What distinguishes the AAC&U is its contempt toward students at non-elite schools, its belief that such students can’t flourish in an education stepped in the liberal arts. Instead, the AAC&U contends that only a presentist education will do for such students. It terms this approach “interdisciplinary,” but “nondisciplinary” is a more appropriate term.
The AAC&U touts its “General Education for a Global Century” project as “innovative” partly because it employs “social networking.” (The internet—how innovative!) The group’s social networking site provides a sense of the topics that, according to the AAC&U, deserve more attention in general education curricula.
What demonstrates “a need for the deep, interdisciplinary education that global learning offers”? According to project coordinator Chad Anderson, “the deliberate plane crash into the IRS building in Austin, Texas,” which “must raise complex questions about politics, the economy, and domestic terrorism.” Really? This would be a little bit like a cranky conservative professor demanding that Columbia, in 1970, reorient its gen-ed curriculum around to focus on the explosion of the Weathermen townhouse in Greenwich Village.

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Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

In the wake of the National Association of Scholars’ report on summer reading for college freshmen—the report found many of the assigned books trivial and politically one-sided—we asked Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, to explain his institution’s unusually rigorous approach to summer reading.

franz-kafka.jpgFor the past two years, Bard College has asked first-year students to read works by Kafka and Darwin over the summer. These texts then become subjects of analysis when the students arrive on campus in August for an intensive three-week program of reading and writing before the fall semester begins. Let me explain the thinking behind this approach.

The idea of assigning summer readings to students entering college has three justifications. First, since American high school students usually take more of a vacation from serious thinking and study during the summer months than is warranted, readings remind them that college promises to be demanding and difficult and that it would therefore behoove them to stay in some sort of intellectual shape. This exercise is especially welcome because once high school seniors learn what college they will attend, they often cease to study seriously so that the final months of high school are wasted.

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Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

For several decades, conservative critics of higher education have argued against trends toward the elimination of “core” curricula and with equal ferocity against their replacement by “distribution requirements” or even open curricula. They have, in particular, defended a curriculum in “Great Books,” those widely-recognized texts in the Western tradition authored by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Mill, and Nietzsche, among others. This curriculum – preserved still in some of the nation’s leading universities such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University – as well as at the heart of the longstanding Great Books approach of St. John’s College – is seen as a bulwark against contemporary tendencies toward relativism, post-modernism, and political correctness.
More recently, even some faculty who would eschew the “conservative” label have sought to restore sustained study of the Great Books to some place of pride in the curriculum. Some twenty years after the height of the “culture wars” over the Western canon – during which the phrase “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” was chanted on the Stanford campus – there seems to be a growing sense among some moderate faculty that the curriculum has become too fragmented, and that something valuable was lost in the politically-motivated elimination of a common core. Notably, at Harvard an ad hoc effort by some faculty to establish a Great Books track in the “Gen Ed” requirement was advanced before crashing on the shoals of Harvard’s new fiscal reality (as well as the opposition of some faculty).
This reassessment has been most articulately argued by Anthony Kronman – a moderate liberal – in his recent book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, a professor and former Dean at the Yale Law School, laments the abandonment of a serious engagement with the Great Books. Their neglect has led to the decline of an examination of “the meaning of life,” an activity that he argues should be at the heart of the university experience. He praises a period in the history of American universities which was dominated by what he calls a worldview of “secular humanism.” This period of “secular humanism” followed the widespread disaffiliation of traditionally religious institutions and preceded the rise of the modern research university and the concomitant rise of political correctness in the humanities. He urges modern institutions of higher education to adopt something like the Yale program in “Directed Studies” – in which he teaches – which requires students to engage in a concentrated study of the Great books ranging from Homer to Luther, from Machiavelli to Kant, from Plato to Nietzsche – over a two year span.

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Another Success Story

A recent report by American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled “What Will They Learn?” makes clear that the steady deterioriation of general education at the best colleges continues apace. The report studied general education requirements at 100 top schools and found that “Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses.” Indeed, my own university dropped its U.S. history requirement a year ago, replacing it with a watery “History, Society, Culture” that allows just about everything to count.
The upshot is that one can no longer rely on the ordinary curriculum to ensure a solid liberal education for all students. This is one reason why we need special undergraduate programs, centers, and institutes that emphasize broad learning in civics and history, and provide students a forum for the discussion of ideas and ideologies. I highlighted one of them awhile back, the Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, NY, run by Bob Paquette and providing students a home for the reasoned and critical study of Western civilization.
Another one is the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. It was established back in 1991 by Senator Mitch McConnell, who graduated from Louisville 27 years earlier. The goal of the center is to educate students to become engaged and informed citizens, and so it hosts luncheons, seminars, panel discussions, and lectures with undergraduates as full participants. Gary Gregg, the Director, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the university, and his writings The Presidential Republic, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition and Securing Democracy—Why We Have an Electoral College.
The curriculum of the Center emphasizes civics education, and it developed expressly as a response to “the national problem of declining classroom emphasis on American history and civics education, abysmal student knowledge of the American Constitution and political processes, and a growing detachment of young people from the political process.” The programs and events the Center organizes remedy the knowledge deficit by offering scholarships to young people interested in a broad education in political science and the liberal arts, along with internships that give them direct exposure to U.S. politics in action.

Continue reading Another Success Story

The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost


The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

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The Modern Academic Cauldron

In the 1950s, Hamilton College, where I now teach, had no marketing arm to speak of, but the New York Times provided a good deal of favorable coverage. A few years ago I stumbled upon one such item in a June 1950 issue. The headline said “Hamilton Program: College Curriculum Is Revised to Provide the Basic Musts.” The article reported that the Hamilton faculty, led by President Robert McEwen, had completed an intensive five-year study to answer a rather obvious but nonetheless vital question to a liberal arts college: “What basic musts in the way of intellectual and moral equipment should a college give its students to prepare them for effective living during the next fifty years.” Led by President McEwen, the Hamilton faculty determined that forty-five percent of the class time of every student would be devoted to foundational courses that would provide undergraduates with what was called basic intellectual equipment to reach six objectives: 1. written and oral command of English; 2. fluency in a foreign language; 3. a command of logic and its application to the understanding of the natural world; 4. understanding and enjoyment of the creative arts; 5. knowledge of the principal ways human beings have constructed and interacted with society; and 6. “an understanding of the intellectual bases of ethical judgment.” Bracing stuff that.
Now let’s turn the clock ahead almost sixty years and create for consideration an imaginary liberal arts college shaped by what seem to be fashionable trends. It’s no longer a shining little village on the hill, but an academic cauldron. I’ll stir the pot. The imaginary campus costs more than $50,000 a year to attend. Grade inflation is so bad that an average of eighty-five would rank a student in the bottom fourth of the class; an average of eighty would plant you pretty much in the root cellar, like Mr. Inconsequential, the last man drafted in the seventh round by an NFL team. The college not only doesn’t require one course in Shakespeare for graduation, it doesn’t require one course in English, or in any other discipline for that matter. Recent valedictorians receive awards without ever having taken during their four years of matriculation a single course in English and history. Many students who depart the place after four years possess a far greater understanding of the intricacies of sex toys than of the complexities of the Constitution. Because of the adverse incentive provided by an open curriculum–that is, a curriculum with no disciplinary or core requirements–the number of double majors, once almost non-existent in the early 1980s, has soared. Indeed, the evidence from recent crops of Phi Beta Kappas, the canaries in the mine at this imaginary college, reveals that the number of double majors in this class of the so-called best and brightest more than doubles the average for members of the junior and senior classes as a whole. Many students are graduated with transcripts so manicured that seventy percent and more of all their courses are taken in only two disciplines, which could be as closely allied as math and economics, or English and creative writing. In some cases students avoid entire realms of knowledge because they prefer to play toward perceived academic strengths or to attend an increasing number of soft courses in programs created to satisfy academic fashion. Student tour guides who work for the admissions office openly tout the open curriculum in avoiding difficult classes as a way to lure high school students to the college.
The college has a “Great Names” series, richly endowed, but uses the money to import a comedian who charges more than $100,000 for his performance, a fee that exceeds that charged by former presidents of the United States who have spoken at the college. On this imaginary campus, a college official who lauds the satire of this comedian and who anonymously lends his prose to a student publication that regularly derides Catholics, berates a fraternity as unthinking and insensitive for using a satirical image created by that very comedian.

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Wonder How The Clout Scandal Happened?

ACTA’s latest publication, “For the People: A Report Card on Public Higher Education in Illinois” has unearthed more of the usual disappointments. In a series of rankings, General Education requirements earned an F, with only three public universities (out of eight) indicating a foreign language requirement “and not a single institution received credit for Literature U.S. Government or History, or Economics.” Rankings for intellectual diversity also came out with an F. ACTA commissioned a research group to conduct a student survey, and the results were less than encouraging. 61% of students responded in the affirmative to the assertion that “some courses have readings that present only one side of a controversial issue.” In response to the proposal “some professors frequently comment on politics in my class even though it has nothing to do with the course” 38.6% of respondents agreed.
The most striking survey findings, however, came in the areas of Governance and Cost and Effectiveness. In many key areas, the boards of the University of Illinois System and the Southern Illinois University System (I didn’t know they were separate until now either) seem to be living up to all the traditional responsibilities of a rubber stamp.
Both systems garnered another set of Fs in these rankings. The ACTA report points out that there are no listings by which the public may contact trustees directly (as is possible in other states). Aside from a one-day session of meetings there are additionally no efforts to appraise the trustees of their responsibilities or provide them with outside advice. There seem to be few meaningful committees to assess significant criteria of university operation.

Continue reading Wonder How The Clout Scandal Happened?

Restoring A Core

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has released a trustee guide Restoring a Core as a follow-up to What Will They Learn, their recent survey of core curricula (more about that here) Take a look at the “How Will A Core Benefit My Institution” section beginning on page 4 for some interesting examples from SUNY and Booklyn College and the following pages for practical advice on how to encourage the adoption of a core.

Wonder If There’s A Core Curriculum?

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has unveiled a new site, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, that provides a survey of core curriculum requirements at 100 American Universities. They evaluate the existence of requirements in 7 areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science. Suffice it to say that most colleges required don’t ask much of their students in any of these areas.
I took a look at a few colleges with core curricula of which I was aware. Columbia University, for one, included the notes that “No credit given for Mathematics because math courses are part of the Science course list but are not required” and that its “Core Curriculum offers students an integrated and rich curriculum.”
There’s a nicely detailed portrait also offered of the numerous schools (most on the list) that lack a core curriculum but do possess “distribution requirements” which range from the hopelessly vague to the fairly substantive. Here spring up numerous additional notes: at Johns Hopkins “No credit given for Composition because only writing-intensive topic courses in a range of disciplines are required” or at Harvard “No credit given for U.S. Government or History because the United States in the World requirement is made up of niche courses.”
The site’s certainly worth a look. Do wander over.

Is The Core Curriculum Really Coming Back?

The good news: A survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) announcing that “distribution requirements” in undergraduate education are out and “general education” is back.
Translated, that means—or ought to mean—that colleges are reinstating the idea of a core curriculum of essential courses, conveying essential knowledge, that every well-rounded college graduate ought to have under his or her belt. Core curricula, which typically required undergraduates to enroll in one- or two-year sequences of basic courses in history, literature, science, mathematics, foreign languages, and English composition, fell by the wayside during the 1970s and 1980s, on the theory that the traditional core courses were overly Western-centric (a survey course in Western civilization was usually at their heart), and that what students learned wasn’t so important as the methodology of the various disciplines involved. Why be forced to take a year-long history survey that covered Egyptian pyramids, classical Greece, and the rise of the modern nation-state when you could learn how historians think by choosing any two history courses from a smorgasbord of historical offerings that might include everything from meso-American civilization to women during World War II? Thus began the “cafeteria” approach to undergraduate requirements that has been the prevailing academic model for at least 30 years, in which students must obtain a specified number of credits in, say, the humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences but are free to decide which individual courses in those fields are to their liking (or are easy or meet at convenient times).

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Why Students Flee The Humanities

On February 25, 2009, an article by Patricia Cohen appeared in the New York Times: “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” Its thesis was a familiar one: an economic downturn will lead to a decline in the number of college majors in the humanities because in hard times enrollments shift toward majors with direct vocational utility. The article could have been written 25 or 50 years ago—the phenomenon it talks about is well known. For example, English majors made up 7.59% of those graduating with bachelor’s degrees in 1968, but as the stock market bottomed in the early 1980’s following the Carter economic debacle, that number had sunk to 3.7%. But Cohen’s article is not just a tedious rehash of well-known ideas from the past: it has a more serious flaw. For while this argument could have been and in fact was made at many times in the past, it can not be made today. And that is because the humanities have undergone a profound change that makes Cohen’s entire argument meaningless.
Let’s look first at the statistics. As the economy improved dramatically during the 1980’s, the figure for English majors rose with the economy, reaching 4.7% by the end of the decade. But now the familiar pattern broke down: as the economy continued to get stronger, the figures for English majors began to go in the opposite direction, the first time this had happened. By 1995, English majors had declined to 4.3% of all bachelor’s degrees, and by 2005 they had gone down to 3.7%, the same figure that was seen at the economy’s bottom in the early 80’s—except that the economy had now been booming almost continuously for 20 years.

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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:
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America In The World:

Pursuits Of Happiness: Ordinary Lives In Colonial America

Continue reading Replacing The Harvard Core

Worth A Look

– Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy wonders why some prominent universities don’t have law schools – Princeton, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Rice, and Tufts are law-school-less. As is Brandeis, ironic as he notes, “for a prominent university named after a Supreme Court justice.”

He’s surprised they haven’t made the leap. Take a look.

– Harvard’s new Gen Ed curriculum seems fairly promising, at first glance, with an introductory humanities colloquium, and classes on the novel in Europe, globalization, and American healthcare policy. Flaw? These courses can only enroll a small number of students. Hopefully we’ll see more in the future, but there’s really no telling what they’ll look like.

– And Margaret Soltan, on the University of Colorado – Boulder, home of the new ‘conservative professor’:

And you know, therefore, that the proposed endowed chair there in Conservative Thought and Policy – essentially an effort to import a high-profile conservative thinker – doesn’t represent an alien imposition on a quiet mountain monoculture.

The main reality of campus life at Boulder is a hard-drinking, right-leaning, anti-intellectual, and politically indifferent basketball and football culture dominated by dumb frat guys and an athletics department so corrupt it generated the largest national university sports scandal of them all not long ago.

University Of The Absurd

Recently I sat down with a young woman who shared with me the experience of her first year at Thurgood Marshall College, one of the six colleges of the University of California at San Diego. She explained to me that regardless of her major field of study and in order to graduate she was required to take certain “general education” courses, the centerpiece of which is a three-quarter, 16-unit creation called “Dimensions of Culture.” What she had to tell me is a warning to both parents and students.

The Dimensions of Culture program (DOC) is an introductory three-quarter social science sequence that is required of all first year students at Thurgood Marshall College, UCSD. Successful completion of the DOC sequence satisfies the University of California writing requirement. The course is a study in the social construction of individual identity and it surveys a range of social differences and stratifications that shape the nature of human attachment to self, work, community, and a sense of nation. Central to the course objective is the question of how scholars move from knowledge to action. UCSD Course Description

Edgar B. Anderson: So let’s talk about Dimensions of Culture. That’s vague. What’s that mean?

Student: I don’t know. Each quarter, the first quarter is called Diversity, the second quarter is called Justice, and the third quarter is called Imagination. So Diversity is we studied everything about minorities – like women, homosexuals, and then Asians, blacks, Latinos.

Q. So what’s left out – white males?

A. Yeah, pretty much if you’re a white male you’re bad, that’s kind of the joke among all the students.

Q. Women are not even a minority, they’re a majority.

A. But it’s more about the workforce.

Q. Power.

A. Yeah, that’s kind of how they presented it. We didn’t really focus on women that much. It was mainly how Asians have been oppressed in history and how Latinos continue to be oppressed and how blacks continue to be oppressed, all of that.

Continue reading University Of The Absurd

Fishing For Purpose

When asked about the theme for December’s annual MLA convention- “The Humanities at Work in the World” – Yale comparative literature professor and MLA president Michael Holquist spoke of the need “to raise the consciousness of people outside the academy about the importance of the work that’s done inside the academy.” Acknowledging that the humanities do not enjoy wide public support, Holquist diagnoses the problem as a superficial one of public relations – if humanists simply advertise their worth more effectively, he suggests, the public will accept their self-assessment at face value.

But that’s a glib analysis of a problem that goes far beyond appearances. The real problem the academic humanities face is a loss of purpose, imagination, and professionalism. No amount of PR can conceal that or make it palatable to a skeptical public – and efforts to do so risk revealing exactly how intellectually hollow the humanities currently are.

A case in point: Stanley Fish’s recent attempt to use his New York Times blog to justify the humanities. A Milton specialist who has written numerous books on literary theory, Fish is a public intellectual who has long been at the forefront of the most influential movements in the humanities. That’s why the New York Times gave him his very own online forum, “Think Again.” It’s also why his posts there routinely draw hundreds of comments from academics and lay readers.

A skilled rhetorician, Fish is exceptionally able to walk finer intellectual lines than most. So it was instructive to see him take up the perennially vexed question of the humanities in two posts at “Think Again.”

Continue reading Fishing For Purpose