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Revamping Core Curricula Across America

Much discussion followed YU’s transition to a new core curriculum last year with a range of viewpoints being expressed on campus, some of them on these very pages. While the relative merits of the old curriculum versus the new “core” may still be up for serious debate, I would like to examine the utility of core curricula in campuses all around America, and how it relates specifically to our curriculum here at YU.

Most four-year, liberal arts colleges in America structure their general curricula around course requirements spanning a range of departments. The thought is that the student will gain exposure to a broad array of disciplines, gleaning ideas from each in an effort to round out his or her knowledge base. For example, a student might have to take a certain number of courses in the social sciences, a certain number in the humanities, a certain number in the physical sciences, and so on and so forth. Which courses the student actually takes are entirely up to the student, as is the choice of the subject with which to fulfill any requirement spanning multiple departments.

The problem with this system is that most students graduate college knowing very little in key fundamental spheres of life here in America. Studies performed by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) have demonstrated college graduates’ utter ignorance in American history, American civics, and basic economics. For example, only one-fifth of college graduates correctly knew that James Madison was the “Father of the Constitution,” a fact meant to be covered in grade school. Students also come out of college lacking exposure to the philosophical works foundational to Western civilization, as well as the classics in American and British literature. Basic proficiency in college-level economics, mathematics, and statistics continues to remain a pipe dream.

But these findings are not surprising given the curricula at colleges all across America. A stunning 61 percent of colleges require only three or fewer specific courses in their general curriculum. Only 34 percent of schools require any sort of math course, while only 20 percent include a U.S. history course. Sadly, just 5 percent of schools require any course in basic economics. Maybe these numbers might contribute to the fact that a staggering 46 percent of Americans believe that college students are not getting their money’s worth at their institutions. Higher education is increasingly churning out adults who lack basic fluency in the shared knowledge of the experiences and institutions which bind us Americans together as a nation. Even more distressing, these graduates are utterly ignorant of many subjects considered vital for any profession in any field, such as rudimentary economics, math, writing, communication, and finance.

Now, one may argue that the goal of college is not that the student emerge with any specific sets of facts, ideas, or skills, but rather that he or she explore subjects of interest and discover those most appealing to his or her particular tastes. And I would not disagree with that characterization as one noteworthy element of the college experience. That being said, a college also has the imperative to furnish its students with the essential tools needed to be active, successful, well-informed, and well-educated members of American society and culture. This entails being somewhat well-versed in the subjects listed above, as well as being adequately prepared with the skills needed upon joining the workforce. Ideally, we could bestow familiarity with many of these necessary fields in high school, freeing up the college years to extend the vanguard of one’s knowledge base to fascinating new frontiers. However, given the sorry state of the nation’s lower education apparatus (test scores in reading and math have essentially remained flat since 1970), perhaps colleges should direct their students to invest at least some of their general coursework in these elementary disciplines.

Of course, incoming freshmen who are already proficient in these areas would be able to place out of them by taking simple exams upon their arrival at campus. This new “core” would only entail about six to eight courses in total, so there would still be room for some of the more exotic courses to fulfill the rest of the general requirements.  Plus, this would not at all impact the course lineup for any major or minor, just the general curriculum requirements. Emory University in Atlanta has already experimented with this idea, as it has begun a voluntary “opt-in” core curriculum. While only four courses, the curriculum spans the foundations of American democracy and politics, great works in Western civilization and literature, and an introduction to ethics. This kind of curriculum is a small step in the right direction in bestowing college students with a true liberal arts education, one which gives them the foundations of the very culture and tradition represented by the Western academy.

Which takes me back to the curriculum changes here at YU. New “departments” such as Cultures over Time, Interpreting the Creative, and Contemporary World Cultures may sound nice, but at the end of the day, they represent a misguided attempt to educate students in some obscure topic whose title is vague and whose significance is negligible. Students who cannot explain a simple supply/demand curve or the underpinnings of our capitalist system find themselves analyzing themes of Christianity in modern poetry. Students lacking exposure to literary giants such as Keats, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and Miller instead happily move on to explore “films on films.” Students at a loss to explain the origin and significance of judicial review are pushed to investigate some hazy concept called “the Idea of Self.”

One of my Honors seminars my first year on campus was a course entitled “Writing as Blogging.” Fun course it was, but I cannot say I actually gained anything from it aside from polishing up my writing, which all English courses should achieve. That time could have instead been used much more productively by introducing us to classic works of literature undoubtedly left untouched in high school. This is just a small, anecdotal example, but it demonstrates the long-term hollowness of a large portion of the humanities courses in the new “core” curriculum here at YU.

It’s time to embrace the unfortunate reality of what the general curricula throughout the world of higher education are actually accomplishing. What I am advocating is a new core curriculum, one where all students are required to take a few basic courses which are vital to understanding, appreciating, and maneuvering American society. Courses in literary classics, Western civilization, basic economic theory, U.S. history, American politics, personal finance, writing, and rudimentary mathematics/statistics would all be part of this new curriculum. Students who place out would be able to fulfill their requirements with more advanced courses in the corresponding disciplines. All students would still have other general requirements which could be fulfilled with any desired course in the appropriate department, as in the old curriculum here at YU. I feel that this setup achieves the optimum balance between personal exploration of interests and concrete accumulation of specific knowledge and skill sets indispensable to the modern-day working American.

This is just one of many possible suggestions on how to revamp the general education structure at institutions of higher learning in the United States. With the job market how it is, nothing can be more important than arming college graduates with the tangible tools employers are actually looking for. However, the issues facing the next generation of Americans extend beyond that. If we are to remain a nation truly “indivisible,” united by our values and bound together by our common destiny, it behooves us to educate our youth in the very historical principles which have made our country into the greatest beacon of freedom and prosperity the world has ever known.