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To Core or Not to Core (NYT)

sacsac Registered User Posts: 1,547 Senior Member
edited January 2006 in Parents Forum
The NYT educational supplement today had an article about Harvard's possible curriculum change that I thought presented an excellent discussion of the Great Books vs general distribution vs open curriculum debate. It did a good job distinguishing between general distribution requirements and a core curriculum -- something people don't always quite get. And, it put the discussion within the interesting context of modern university politics.

My favorite quote about Columbia's core was the professor who said it was like the interstate highway system -- you can get agreement to maintain it but you'd never again be able to get enough agreement to build it.
Post edited by sac on

Replies to: To Core or Not to Core (NYT)

  • sybbie719sybbie719 Super Moderator Posts: 20,901 Super Moderator
    Link to the article: What Every student Should know

    MOST college students want to learn something that will help them get a job. The most popular undergraduate major by far these days is business, and more B.A.'s are awarded every year in the "health professions" than in, say, English lit. No wonder. In terms of mean annual earnings, business grads do much better than the hapless English majors, who are just a notch ahead of graduates in forestry and environmental science.

    There are still colleges that insist on the merits of the liberal arts - education intended to cultivate you as a person, that is - and some of them, the elite institutions especially, hint that such an education will help you get an even better job. But even among the liberal arts colleges, there has been considerable debate recently over what is known as general education: the idea that in addition to competency in some specialized subject - a major - there is a body of wide-ranging knowledge that all students ought to acquire.

    When Lawrence H. Summers took over as president of Harvard University, in 2001, one of his most urgent projects was to reform the undergraduate curriculum, which he thought inadequate for the 21st century. In speeches and interviews, he talked about how students majoring in the humanities needed to know more science, biological science especially, and to be more comfortable with mathematical and statistical reasoning. He mused occasionally about broad-based survey courses of the kind that are seldom taught anymore, and insisted that in an age of globalization, Harvard students also needed to get part of their education from travel and study abroad.

    In the spring of 2003, Mr. Summers put together four faculty committees to examine different aspects of education at Harvard. This is an exercise most universities undergo every 20 or 30 years, and it usually takes them forever. Mr. Summers thought the task so pressing that he asked for a draft report in a year, which in academe is practically overnight. The final report was released this past November to a certain amount of fanfare in the non-academic press. But inside the ivory towers it landed on many desks not so much with a thud as a rustle.

  • DonemomDonemom Registered User Posts: 890 Member
    With one child a grad from Brown, and another at Harvard right now, this article was of great interest to me.

    On an anecdotal level, I can only say that without distribution requirements, my daughter's transcript (and that of the vast majority of people she knew) would have easily met any school's distribution requirements. (Only one friend avoided the humanities like the plague). There were just so many amazing courses covering such a wide range of fields, the difficulty was in just narrowing it down each sememster. While I don't pretend that her four year course list is comparable in breadth to a Columbia-type core curriculum, I do feel confident she obtained a very solid liberal arts education. And having the freedom of choice made her supremely happy, which is why she chose Brown in the first place.

    My son has not expressed a strong opinion on Harvard's current "core",--none of his first semester courses are from it, although his combination of a science class, a foreign language class, a writing class, and a freshman seminar (history/philosophy topic) certainly would cover a bunch of distribution requirements. Harvard is in a real transitional phase on a number of fronts, --addressing curriculum requirements, the school calendar, and student (social) life. So for us, the question is what changes will be put in place during the next 3 1/2 years. Thankfully, he seems extremely happy at school--tho I think having finals in January would be his first choice of what needs to go!
  • momofthreemomofthree Registered User Posts: 1,486 Senior Member
    This article brings up a point many don't understand about the Brown open curriculum. Though students have no specific core requirements, they are expected to declare a "concentration" or major, and they must complete a specific number of credits and specific courses within the concentration (s) they choose. They cannot expect to take 30 credits of introductory level courses and go into the world saying they are educated. (I found this a relief to learn, as I have a S at Brown and worried a bit about this; I tend to favor requirements.)

    On a slightly different topic, I was pretty stunned that my D, who graduated from an LAC with a strong core curriculum, didn't have to take even one course in English . . .she satisfied her literature requirements with German courses.
  • cangelcangel Registered User Posts: 4,127 Senior Member
    Thanks Sybbie - I find this a very interesting topic. A couple of the schools DD investigated had very modified core curricula - basically, a required course one year long (two years in one case), that covered a smattering of history, philosophy, literature, religion and art. It was designed to beef up the students' writing skills, knowledge and ability to participate in classroom debate. These schools usually had 2 of these yearlong courses to choose from, each with slightly different topics/perspectives. They also had modest math and science requirements - demonstrate a given level of math proficiency, and take maybe 1 or 2 college level science classes.

    The fascinating thing to me was that every student we spoke with had positive things to say about these required humanities courses, and very few has chosen the schools because of the required courses - the majority had picked the school for other reasons. They really liked the idea of everyone reading the same books and having similar discussions in class.
  • twinmomtwinmom Registered User Posts: 2,826 Senior Member
    "Harvard is in a real transitional phase on a number of fronts, --addressing curriculum requirements, the school calendar, and student (social) life. So for us, the question is what changes will be put in place during the next 3 1/2 years."

    Donemom - Has there been any indication that the school calendar (finals in January) may change in the near future?
  • maritemarite Registered User Posts: 21,586 Senior Member
    Harvard students (and faculty) are by no means of one mind on the subject of calendar change. See the Crimson editorial from last Friday:

    What's Missing This January?
    As calendar change stalls, we hope for the issue to be tabled indefinitely
    Published On Friday, January 06, 2006 2:35 AM

  • SBmomSBmom Registered User Posts: 5,725 Senior Member
    Re comparing the salaries of business vs english majors-- I suspect you get a different picure when examining kids at top tier schools (where the rigor of all departments is greater, and where business majors often don't exist.)

    This is not a scientific sample, but high-powered entrepreneurs, corporate wizards, and investment bankers whom I know from Brown days studied virtually everything-- english, comp lit, japanese, classics, semiotics, american civilization, poli sci. I can think of three humanities folks off the top of my head who retired in their 30's after stratospheric business successes.

    Though my first few years out of the gate were pretty much abysmal financially, I found my path pretty quickly. Thereafter I mostly had very high income, primarily because (1) I am extremely comfortable being self-employed and generating my own work, and (2) I am picky about how I spend my time and to what net financial effect.

    Even better, because of my pickiness and willingness to generate or create work for myself, I have had a very high degree of engagement and satisfaction with my work. One of my favorite jobs was actually very low paid (H was primary earner during that period) but I had zero problem loving that job for a host of other reasons.

    While an open curriculum may not produce as high a number of immediately-employable business people, it is great at inculcating passion and stoking initiative-- two key factors that allow graduates to pick sound paths-- then continue to ascend with virtually no limits. Though it may be a case of 'the chicken and the egg' to some extent, Brown grads are generally very directed, functional, and engaged-- and ultimately they are quite successful... measured by whatever definition drives them.
  • momrathmomrath Registered User Posts: 5,677 Senior Member
    I find Harvard’s quest for the right balance between required and open to be of interest, not for the least reason that the program that they are heading toward sounds very much like what Williams has now. . I don’t really have a problem with the no-requirements end of the spectrum. I read somewhere that a group of toddlers given free-reign to a buffet table eventually balanced their diets on their own. I suspect that most college students would do the same. For my son, having distribution requirements on top of major requirements was a good thing. Maybe another kid would have been more motivated to experiment without an official nudge, but for my arts/humanities focused student being “forced” to try sciences, quantitative reasoning and social studies was a nudge in the right direction

    Assuming that a college does have requirements, the question is whether it’s better to have a core that everyone takes or a loose grouping of distribution requirements. This quandary reflects, to me, the dilemma at the crux of 21st century liberal arts education and I think that Prof. Gross put it well when he said “"Some people on the faculty had very specific lists of things they thought were essential to the curriculum, but these lists just didn't intersect. Try it at home. It's a good dinner party game - to see if you can agree on a brief list of things students need to know."

    The cannon of knowledge can no longer be exclusively Western-centric. I – being a humanities-phile trained in the pre-Global Pleistocene era – like to think that EVERYONE should read Shakespeare and should study Italian Renaissance art, should know the difference between Plato, Aristotle and Socrates and should know whether it’s Beethoven or Mozart playing in the dentist’s office. Further, as someone who’s lived in the Third World for 15+ years I’d also like to see comparative religion, Asian political science, economics and art on that list. Someone else’s list would be entirely different coming from a science, math or history perspective.

    The fact remains that after you fulfill your major/concentration requirements at most you have 20 classes left to your discretion. If you have a double major, as so many kids do today, even less. You are not going to cover the whole cannon of knowledge in 20 classes! You will need to pick and choose among what you’re interested and what the administration thinks is good for you. Balance is everything.

    Here we get to Harvard’s solution of leaving the decision of what classes to offer to the non-major up the individual department. Again, from Williams example I find this approach good, but variable. The non-major venturing into an unknown territory will benefit most from general, survey type courses. (It was news to me that professors hate to teach surveys as at Williams the art history surveys are taught by the crème of the crème.)

    The surveys don’t have to be overwhelmingly general; they just have to have general appeal to “browsers from among the entire student population.” The problem seems to be that left to their own devises departments tend to overstock their course lists with arcane and often politically correct subjects. Fine if you’re really interested in Artemisia Gentileschi the foremost (only?) female Italian Baroque painter; not fine if you’re a biology or philosophy major who’s spending a year in Rome and hopes to get deeper into Baroque art than the 2 days allotted to it in Art History 101.

    As far as calendars go, the thought of having exams after December break gives me the chills. Williams has a J-term (Winter Study) that is wildly popular among students mostly for the social opportunities it affords. Academically, its benefit is questionable, but we like it for other reasons.

    And as another “hapless” liberal arts major who, though totally accidently I must admit, fell into a lucrative business career. I concur that the degree is not the determinating factor of future income. Liberal arts skills of evaluating and articulating are the backbone of business communication. You just can’t predict with total accuracy what skills will be the most marketable five years hence. Pre-9/11, Arabic was just another obscure language; now a course in Islam should be on every college’s must-have list.

    I also must confess that I haven’t a clue what the Stamp Act is/was. Thank God for Google.
  • mol10emol10e Registered User Posts: 445 Member
    I wonder if the core vs distribution vs free choice debate is one where the quality of the student body is an important but neglected factor. IMO students at Brown, Williams and other schools at that level will have students who are admitted due to their high degree of self-motivation for learning. The challenge in teaching a survey course to these students is making sure that there is enough additional resource material available so they can explore areas of personal interest. These students will pick up the difference among the Greek philosophers and European composers through their inquisitive involvement in the world around them. It is for the less talented students where the debate about core curriculum is important. Should these students be expected to acquire a foundation of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and natural sciences? Does our society expect that college educated individuals possess a certain level of intellectual rigor and sophistication based on a background in the major ideas of Western Civilization? I think most parents on this site do not support the idea of a college education as preparation for a specific career or type of employment, but how much emphasis should colleges place on the development of broad, multidisciplinary-based critical analysis, reasoning, communication, and problem solving? While I respect the varied opinions on this topic, I think that when a university struggles to develop a core curriculum and provides the financial and educational resources to elevate the teaching of core classes to their best faculty, this is the ultimate level of a liberal arts education.
  • maritemarite Registered User Posts: 21,586 Senior Member
    Momrath makes many good points.
    What should be the contents of a core curriculum? Should it provide the foundations for further exploration? But will students actually explore further or will this be their last exposure to this particular field of enquiry? If the core consists of surveys, will it not be like the AP curriculum, one mile wide and one inch deep? Would students not be best served by a semester of Shakespeare as opposed to the greatest hits of Western literature (and then, what about non-Western literature)? These are some questions that are at the heart of the debates. I think the frustrations many profs evince toward surveys is their inability to probe deeper into specific topics.

    When Harvard produced its Core curriculum in the 70s, the idea was that it would provide approaches to knowledge. But as many profs who actually teach core courses declare, they do not teach differently in the core than they do in their departmental offerings (read: very likely, there's not much time to discuss how they go about exploring topics in their particulary fields in terms of theory and methods as opposed to lecturing the results of these explorations).

    Another issue is what is the role of a core curriculum in the broader context of a person's life-long education? Is the course on the key events of Western Civ the last chance for someone to explore this topic at age 18 or the launching pad for exploring further at some later point in that person's life? Is it, in other words, the last stage of high school education before specializing or the beginning of a life-long education?

    As I can see, Harvard's current debates aim to please everybody and displease the least number of people. The reforms are aimed at pleasing those who would like a common experience while at the same time providing greater breadth of choice than under the current Core AND promoting greater interaction between faculty and students AND allowing students to take more advanced classes earlier if they so wish. Hmmm....

    As for the calendar, opinions are mixed (see the Crimson editorial I posted above in post #7) My S has just finished a final project which I doubt he could have done well before Christmas. He spent part of his Christmas vacation reading up for it and wrote it up after returning to campus. He is now turning his attention to reviewing for the rest of his exams. This is not the result of slacking the rest of the semester, since each of the classes had weekly problem sets. He does not seem to mind. There does not seem to be a huge groundswell of demand for holding exams and requiring papers before Christmas though there are definitely those who would like to have the month of January completely free.
  • cangelcangel Registered User Posts: 4,127 Senior Member
    To take something that Mol is saying - is it a core body of knowledge we expected from college graduates, or a core group of SKILLS. I would argue both - there are some skills and some basic knowledge that we would expect a college grad to know - but the devil is in the details, isn't it? I think we would want all grads to have basic American history and civics to be an educated voter, but doe that include the stamp Act. They schould be able to write a doherent paragraph, but not win a Pulitzer, etc.
  • minimini Registered User Posts: 26,431 Senior Member
    I think one would do well to take a look at the core curriculum at Scripps, which, in my judgment, has the best, most integrated core (both for students AND faculty) in the country. And they've managed to avoid the "canon" debates.
  • maritemarite Registered User Posts: 21,586 Senior Member

    Thanks. The interesting thing is that my S did not apply to Chicago precisely because he was concerned the core, whose intrinsic value he did not question, would get in the way of his scheduling of advanced courses. Harvard's less coherent but also less constraining structure suited him better. I wonder how many students are attracted by exactly the same features?
  • garlandgarland Registered User Posts: 15,084 Senior Member
    My H and I attended a distribution requirement school (UMich), my D attended an essentially open curriculum (Wesleyan), and my S is presently studying a Core curriculum (Columbia). I think that if you haven't had experience with any of these styles, you shouldn't really make assumptions about "mile wide, inch deep." Each has drawbacks and advantages.

    A student doing a good job at an open curriculum is basically setting up a distribution for her/himself. Thus, my experience and my D's were similar. What was interesting at the time I was at Mich was that the Honors English program was run as a Core, with eight required classes which all of us took together over the last four semesters. I still find that I have a better framework of English lit because of that, rather than the more common style of choosing one course from period A, 2 from genre B, etc. I think that both D and I made good use of our outside of major courses and learned a lot of different things.

    My S's experience with the Core is, I believe, giving him a framework on thought (mainly but not by any means wholly Western) which is beyond what I, my D, or my H had as undergrads. Though he sometimes chafes at the amount of his schedule it takes up, I can see he is getting a wonderful, many-layered education. Though Western centered, he does have to take two non-western cultures classes (2 more than any of the rest of the family were required to take.)

    It's not for everyone, but I do think a Core can be a priceless experience.
  • minimini Registered User Posts: 26,431 Senior Member

    Thanks. The interesting thing is that my S did not apply to Chicago precisely because he was concerned the core, whose intrinsic value he did not question, would get in the way of his scheduling of advanced courses. Harvard's less coherent but also less constraining structure suited him better. I wonder how many students are attracted by exactly the same features?'

    I've got nothing in particular against a core curriculum (other than when it is overly Western-centric). I used to teach in the one at Chicago. I'm also aware that when I was at Oxford, they thought the whole idea of a core curriculum absurd - that was the whole purpose of high school! I imagine it is excellent for some folks, and of marginal utility for others.

    What I like about the core at Scripps is that it is used as a tool to unite the FACULTY to underscore the core mission of the place. The entire faculty has to devise the core - which changes yearly, and it is taught by the most senior faculty. And it is organized not so much around core texts (though there is some of that), but rather "ways of knowing".

    I'm least fond of the distributional requirements notion, though I fully understand the compromise that it represents. I can't remember anything from the few classes that I took to meet my distributional requirements that I wouldn't have taken otherwise. And if the faculty thinks there is truly something that all students must know, it would behoove them to be very clear about what this is, rather than hiding behind the distributional facade. (At my d's school, which has, I think, substantially the same model as Brown, one has to take a minimum of half one's course outside of the major, take a first-year writing intensive, and meet certain distributional requirements for honors. I don't necessarily think that is the best model - it will differ depending on the student.)
This discussion has been closed.