When Curriculum Should Contract

by Thomas A. Shakely

Kathleen Parker writes in the Washington Post:

On [the American Council of Trustees and Alumni website], “What Will They Learn?” . . . visitors can compare the major public and private universities in all 50 states. Of the 714 four-year institutions reviewed, more than 60 percent received a grade of C or worse for requiring three or fewer of the key subjects. Only 16 received an A, among them: Baylor University, City University of New York — Brooklyn College, Texas A&M University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the University of Arkansas and St. Thomas Aquinas. 

In other findings, public institutions are doing a relatively better job than private schools of ensuring that students receive basic skills and knowledge — and at a considerably lower price. But both public and private universities are failing to ensure that students cover the important subjects, notably economics and U.S. government or history. [Emphases added.]

The debate over the future of higher education centers around this question: Will higher education’s curriculum be “relevant” (skills centric) or irrelevant (knowledge focused). So when Ms. Parker writes about the hollowing out of curriculum on campus, and its replacement with an impressive, daunting level of choice in classes, we’re approaching that “relevant or irrelevant” question.

The idea behind a core curriculum, common to all students, was that in forcing a certain level of sameness upon young minds in terms of subjects/eras/themes studied, those students would emerge from the academy with a coherent sense of themselves, equipped to place themselves in the context of an historical narrative.

In short, core curriculum sought to provide students with a means to deal with seemingly contradictory data, competing social interests, contentious issues, and the daily challenges by instilling a common foundation for thought.

This enabled each generation to launch into a chaotic world with common reference points (across history, science, literature, etc.), enabling them to speak intelligently with one another.

“Dead white men” like Shakespeare were essential because their canon was considered timeless, their themes of love, tragedy, loss, and longing speaking to the heart, providing reassuring meaning, informing one’s sense of mankind in a way that a media studies is less equipped to achieve.

At Emory University, for example, to fulfill a “History, Society and Culture” requirement, students may choose from about 600 courses, including “Gynecology in the Ancient World.” At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a “Humanities, Literature and Arts” requirement may be met by taking an introduction to television.

Financial-austerity measures are coming to first-world nations who have, for decades, spent beyond their means. Perhaps its time for an academic austerity (in both curriculum and finances). Our first-rate colleges have bloated their course offerings beyond a humanly beneficial level.

To pare down, to contract, to cut away from the underbrush of a curriculum that has become unwieldy, is not an act of regression but a recognition that too much choice, with too little common experience, can be harmful to healthy minds.

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