Defending the Core

by Jane S. Shaw

Getting a college degree may be necessary for a middle-class life, Columbia University American-studies professor Andrew Delbanco told students at UNC-Chapel Hill earlier this month, but if that’s all you get out of college, you are wasting your time. In an entertaining talk that gave a rather gloomy assessment of higher education, Delbanco said undergraduates are marginalized at most research universities — the first president of the University of Chicago viewed having undergraduates on campus at all as a “temporary concession.”

Delbanco defended a core curriculum — Columbia, which has one, is a rare exception, most schools having gutted theirs. Eighteen-year-olds don’t know what to study without a series of required courses, Delbanco explained. Furthermore, a core curriculum awakens one’s sensitivities. It also gives students a “bull**** meter.” Or, as paraphrased by Duke Cheston on the Pope Center site, “College, therefore, is not so much about memorizing the best that has been thought and said but being able to use such things as a measuring stick for new ideas that come along.”