Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, May 02, 2005
In the comments on my last post, a reader raises the topic of the now-almost-entirely-abandoned "core curriculum." That wasn't what my post was about, but come to think of it I've been meaning to post something about that topic, and no time like the present, eh?

I am, in my gut, a strong partisan of the idea of a "hard" core curriculum, a set of required courses for university undergraduates that provide some kind of essential foundation both for the rest of their university careers and for the rest of their lives. But when I sit down and try to think about what that essential foundation is, I find myself increasingly perplexed.

I think there are three reasons for my perplexity.

First, our idealistic conception of the university as either the training program for a meritocratic elite or the transmission belt of Western Civilization or the proving ground for post-adolescent character - none of these conceptions reckons with the overwhelming numbers, in absolute and percentage terms, of university students these days. When 1% or 10% of the population goes to university, it's plausible to maintain the frankly elitist conception of university life implied by each of these idealistic visions. But when something like 50% of the population gets some form of post-secondary education, these visions no longer make sense. Not to put too fine a point on it, but someone who is going for a degree in physical therapy has rather different needs and goals from someone who is going for a degree in politics, economics and public policy. And yet they also have some needs and goals in common, in terms of acquiring civic virtue, basic understanding of our civilization and its origins, learning how to think about serious questions that will shape their lives, and, not least, an awareness of each other's existence (particularly important for the fellow majoring in politics, economics and public policy). Can you design a core curriculum that makes sense for both kinds of students? Or, to put it differently, is there a way of conceiving of a core curriculum that could be readily adapted to schools at different levels of the academic pecking order?

A second problem is the poverty and diversity of secondary education. A lot of times when people talk about what a core curriculum should be, they are really making a list of things that well-educated students should have learned before they got to university. For example, I am regularly appalled by how little university graduates know of American or Western history. But are they really supposed to be learning this stuff at university? Shouldn't they have learned most of the history they need to know in their four years of secondary school? And if the university were to force these students once again to sit through lengthy survey courses of history, wouldn't students view this as infantilizing? It's important to resist the temptation to imagine a core curriculum along the lines of E. D. Hirsch's program of "cultural literacy" - a project for which I have considerable sympathy, but which I think is rather misplaced applied to a university setting. We do not want the core to be a remedial course.

Finally, I think one of the strengths of America's university system is the sheer number of institutions, and hence the possibility (to some extent realized) of diversity between institutions. Unfortunately, at least among mainstream universities and liberal arts colleges, there is far more emphasis on diversity and choice within the institution, which bleeds the instutition of any authentic character of its own. Rather than imagine what the ideal core curriculum would be for all universities, then, it might be better to think about building a single institution, and constructing its core around that institution's philosophy and character. It might make a lot of sense for Brigham Young, Rice, U VA and Bowdoin to have very different conceptions of what a core curriculum should be.

Bearing all the foregoing in mind, when I think about a core curriculum, the institution I have in mind is a broad-based university or college of arts and sciences with a relatively elite but not top-tier student body. I assume that students come in having already taken biology, chemistry and physics; having taken mathematics up through pre-calculus; having studied American history and European history since the Renaissance; and having read the classic "high school" novels and plays, including some Shakespeare and some of the great 19th century English novels. Given the limitations of American secondary education, I assuming they have studied, but failed to learn, a foreign language; that they have not had significant exposure to art or music; that they have never studied philosophy; that they have had limited exposure to poetry; and that to date their approach to material has been limited to the test-driven or the unstructured-creative, with little exposure to an adversarial or Socratic mode of inquiry. My notion of the purpose of a core includes: introducing students to a variety of academic disciplines; forcing them to grapple with enduring questions and problems; expanding their souls and their capacity to appreciate life in an intellectual capacity; bringing them greater understanding of the intellectual tradition that they inherit; deepening their engagement as citizens with their responsibilities as such; and, by means of the foregoing, to become better versions of who they are.

And here is what I come up with.

I. Origins of the Western Tradition.

An integrated humanities course with a Great Books focus. Students read Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible and some ancient Near-Eastern contextual material, Plutarch, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, Greek and Latin lyric poetry, secondary material on Greek, Hellenistic and Roman History, the Christian Scriptures, Augustine and other early Church material. I am very sorely tempted simply to stop there. That is easily enough material for two years; it is certainly enough material for two terms, and this is only part of the curriculum. I think it's important, moreover, to give a sense of this classical material as living, as still being accessible, and if we race on from here through Dante, Chaucer and Aquinas; Locke, Hobbes and Shakespeare; Goethe, Cervantes and Milton; and on and on through Nietzsche and Joyce and whatever else, then Plato and Euripides will only be cultural signposts, matter to be learned for tests, rather than living presences in students' lives; moreover, they will tend to approach them as part of a story that leads down to the present along a particular path, and hence will necessarily try to pick up that path where it left off (with Foucault and Kathy Acker, I suppose) rather than drink from the source. So my inclination is simply to stop with the early Church. The core of this course is, as I said, direct confrontation with the texts, but students would also learn history, art history, etc.

II. English Poetry.

A very traditional course. Beowulf, Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Whitman, Tennyson, Poe, Longfellow, Hopkins, Yeats, Kipling, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Larkin, Bishop. I've probably put in poets that some would consider dispensible and left out others that some would consider indispensible; forgive me, and consider this a sketch rather than a definitive list. This is covering a lot of ground, and so necessarily the epic poets are not going to get treated fairly. I'm not too upset about that, because if students learn how to read well, they can return to Spenser either in another course or even later in life; if they don't learn to read well, then they will not be able to. Apart from starting with Beowulf, Chaucer and the Pearl Poet, I am reluctant to pursue a strictly chronological approach to such a course, which I include in the core because (a) I suspect most university undergraduates have not had substantial exposure to English poetry; (b) this is their last chance to gain such exposure. Anyone can read a novel, but you have to learn to read poetry. Poetry is, moreover, an appallingly neglected art, and an essential one to the more general ability to read well, write well, and feel deeply. Students will hate this course. They must take it for their own good. I know; I didn't, and I'm still suffering for it.

III. Aspects of American Civilization.

Not a history course. It presumes a decent familiarity with American history; I imagine a strong basic American history text assigned as a reference and to help students who weren't paying attention in high school to keep up. This is, rather, an open-ended exploration of the nature of American Civilization with both a historical and a comparative method. So, for example, one key "aspect" of American Civilization that would be explored is the nature of American Constitutionalism. To that end, students would familiarize themselves with the British antecedents to the American system, read the Federalist Papers and some of the anti-Federalist arguments, read some key Supreme Court decisions, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and finally some of the best contemporary analyses of the American Constitutional tradition (examples: Democracy and Distrust, The People Themselves, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction; pick your favorites). Other topics would include immigration and the origins of the American people (start with Albion's Seed and move on from there); the American foreign-policy tradition (I'm imagining working within Walter Russell Mead's framework); slavery, anti-slavery and the problem of race (David Brion Davis, Eugene Genovese, etc.); the American experience of religion; one can go on and on. Students will love this course, so those who teach it will have to work hard to keep it from becoming a content-free opinion-fest. I wouldn't want those who teach the poetry survey to be too hard on students; the goal is not to weed out those students who will never make it as literary critics but to open up the world of poetry to the entire student body. Reading, re-reading, and re-reading again will be the order of the day, and professors should not be afraid to lead students by the hand. In this course, students will be confident they already know something about everything being taught - they'll be too confident. So the job of the professor will be to challenge them, and in particular to challenge simplistic anti-Americanism and simplistic American-exceptionalism which nearly all students will have absorbed.

IV. Principles of Aesthetics.

Secondary schools around the country have been cutting back on art and music; meanwhile, the tribunes of high culture from the major art museums to schools of architecture are failing utterly to teach humanistic aesthetic principles; and popular culture is almost comically debased. We are surrounded by ugliness, to the point where most people do not even know how to think about the aesthetic. The course will spend a little time reading about theories of the aesthetic (Aristotle, Ruskin, Pater, Nietzsche) but will mostly approach the topic directly, by interacting with works of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography and music. A strong emphasis will be placed on solving aesthetic problems: how to achieve such and such effect in a way that works. To goal of the course is to cultivate a serious, informed appreciation of the arts not only in a museum or concert setting but at home and in all of life, and to convince students that the aesthetic should be one key priority in their lives, that they should not tolerate ugliness or settle for the bland and drab but should put in the effort to surrounding themselves with beauty. I imagine students will love this course, too.

V. Probability and Statistics.

No branch of mathematics is more important to thinking intelligently about the world than statistics. But most students only take a statistics course when required to do so by their major. That means humanities majors never learn any statistics at all. I never took such a course, and though I learned a lot of statistics on the job since then, I would have benefitted from a solid background. More to the point, I would have been able to think more intelligently about all sorts of questions if I had had a better grounding in statistics. Students will hate this course. Tough.

VI. Concepts in Economics.

Ignorance of economics is nearly comparable to ignorance of statistics. But people need to understand some economics for reasons ranging from their own personal prosperity (understanding the importance of savings and investment, and the function of different forms of debt like mortgages and credit cards, as well as intelligently capitalizing on one's own skills and talents) to participating intelligently in political life. Most students are not mathematical enough to do real economics, and the objective of the course is not to make students into economists, but rather to introduce them to the basic concepts in micro- and macro-economics so they can think intelligently about economic questions. Students will, I think, generally like this course.

VII. Logic and Rhetoric.

I was a hard-core high-school debater, a "sport" that suited my abilities and ambitions very well. But it also tempered me, and taught me how to think, better than most courses I took in high school or college. Students are not generally required to contruct arguments that will be refuted by an opponent, nor (and this matters at least as much) are they put in a position where they formally need to persuade someone of something. Nor are they required to speak in public. Having to do these things will, frankly, be painful for many students. That is a necessary pain, particularly for those otherwise inclined to avoid conflict or to resort to rhetorical strategies that are demeaning and insulting to themselves and others in order to get their way (Nancy Hopkins, for example). Formal logic as such is an esoteric discipline, but basic logical principles need to be drilled into students, as do different rhetorical strategies, and then they need to use these principles and strategies in real situations. This is the kind of course that many students will find painful but that many of those same students will look back on with appreciation years later when they've had to navigate negotiations of various kinds in the real world.

VIII. Problems in Philosophy.

I'm ambivalent, actually, about including this one. Most people go through life perfectly happy with no appreciation for philosophy whatsoever. It is not clearly useful, like statistics, nor intrinsically part of a good life, like aesthetics, nor is it really necessary for the upkeep of our civilization and culture. I'm including it in the core because philosophy is another one of those things that, if you don't encounter it at university, you will never have a similar opportunity to approach it thereafter, and because I, personally, think it is of value. I titled the course, "Problems in Philosophy" because I think that's the best way to approach philosophy for true novices: present problems that philosophers have wrestled with. The emphasis is intended to be on "purer" areas of philosophy: how we can know something, how we can communicate meaningfully, etc., and to avoid aesthetic, moral and political questions that might be dealt with adequately in other classes in the core.

IX. Introduction to Human Biology.

A course in human biology would be valuable for many reasons. First, for reasons of health; people really should know about how their bodies work and how to keep them working. They should also understand their own development; both men and women should have a realistic understanding of fertility, of child development, and of aging, because they will be planning to start or delay starting families, raising children, and taking care of aging parents. Our increasing understanding of human biology also informs all kinds of moral and policy questions that students are engaged with. A course in human biology also presents an opportunity to give students something of a map of interesting scientific problems today as well as an introduction to the scientific method on a somewhat more sophisticated level than could be achieved in most secondary schools. I presume that students have taken physics, chemistry and biology in high school, and have done some lab work, so the purpose of this course is more to inform students who are not scientifically inclined and to awaken the interest in science of students who might have been so inclined but somehow missed the boat in high school. I'm ambivalent about including such a course in the core, but I think it's a much better solution than treating science as a distribution requirement.

X. Colloquium on Ethics, Morals and Values.

Unfortunately, this course will inevitably be a gut course, one you almost can't possibly fail. But I think it's appropriate for there to be a course in the core explicitly devoted to exploring questions of ethics, morals and values; questions of how one should live one's life and what is the good. Students will have learned a great deal about the Western Tradition's classical approaches to these problems in the Origins course; they will have learned something about what modern knowledge brings to bear on these questions from the Economics and Human Biology courses; they will have learned something about how to intelligently phrase and answer questions from Logic and Rhetoric. They should have the tools, in other words, to ask and try to answer what are, ultimately, the most important questions. This class would be a forum for doing so. Students will enjoy the course and be tempted to turn it into an endless bull session; the challenge to those who teach it will be to keep the course serious and demanding. Finally, I'm not really sure what the course materials would be; it might be well, ultimately, for them to be drawn from other courses in the core, to have this be a course that explicitly enables students to reflect on what they are learning in other courses and apply it.

XI. Distribution Requirement: Foreign Language (2 years or test to place out).

It is a national scandal that our high-school instruction in foreign languages is so dismal. Inability to learn foreign languages appears to be a congenital defect of the English-speaking peoples, but all that means is that we have to work harder.

XII. Distribution Requirement: Non-western history or literature (2 courses minimum).

The cliche is true: we all need to know more about non-Western societies, particularly South and East Asian societies. But the kinds of survey courses that try to give students an appreciation of global diversity are worse than useless. So while for Western culture I think there's value to a core curriculum approach, for non-Western cultures I suspect the current model of using distribution requirements rather than an actual core works better.

What's missing from the above? Well, as noted the Western Tradition stops with the early Church. I will note that 200 years ago, an educated person studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew; it's a real novelty to assert that to be educated you have to study a canon that comes all the way down to the present. We are not going to make everyone into a student of the Humanities; that being the case, there's only so much you can cram into a core, and I would rather students got a deeper grounding in the classics and skip Medieval and Modern civilization altogether than do a broader survey. The same thing is going on with literature; I would rather have students work hard and deep to learn English poetry than work quick and broad to survey all of Western literature from Homer to Thomas Pynchon. Anyone can learn to read novels on their own time, and if they have already learned to read poetry it will be much easier. There is, once again, only so much you can cram into the core.

There's a very limited exposure to the social sciences. No anthropology, no sociology; the closest we come is Concepts in Economics, and that's not very close. To some extent, the Aspects of American Civilization course offers opportunities to introduce methods from the social sciences, but basically I think there's no good way to integrate these disciplines into the core without either dumbing-down the disciplines or overwhelming the core. And it's not clear to me that people need to know what sociologists do to be truly educated people. That's not to slight sociology; there's no engineering in the core either.

Speaking of which: the science core is limited to one course in statistics and one in human biology. I would not sacrifice the statistics course, but I could be argued out of the biology course. A university undergraduate should already have taken physics, chemistry and biology in high school. Students should already generally know if they have an interest in science. There's a limit to how much the core can do to promote general scientific literacy, and beyond that and introducing some of the most important scientific tools, it's not clear to me where science as such belongs in the core.

So? What do y'all think? Would you go to a school that required you to take all of the above for graduation? When you include the distribution requirements, you're talking, I think, about two full years of coursework. If you were planning to be an engineer, would you go to such a school?