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Revamping the Core Curriculum: a Follow-Up

I am writing this follow-up piece to clarify some of the points I made in my recent article “Revamping Core Curricula Across America.” In my characterization of some of the courses in YU’s new ‘Core Curriculum,’ I was evidently mistaken as to the content of those courses, owing to the fact that I did not fully investigate their contents. It was both unfair and unprofessional of me to deride those courses based solely on their titles, without ever taking the time to examine their syllabi. I duly apologize for any misconceptions that I may have caused any readers to have regarding those classes.

That being said, it is my contention that my thesis remains true. Although my original article focused mostly on higher education in America, I would like to offer a more thorough analysis of the core curriculum here at YU, this being the topic that has seemingly sparked intense debate here on campus.

Core curricula are fashioned to reflect what our society believes is most important for students to learn and become exposed to during their time in college. Owing to logistical constraints, students have only a limited number of courses they can be expected to take outside their selected major. Therefore, by its very nature, the core curriculum will be subject to varying opinions regarding which specific disciplines we should devote precious time and resources to.

In my previous article, I advocated for the implementation of a new core curriculum, and I offered my conception of which courses are integral. These can be divided into two categories: the first involves specific, concrete skills that we want our students to have once they leave college and enter the workforce. I included in this category writing, reading comprehension, personal finance, and perhaps elementary mathematics or statistics.

The second category, one which is admittedly much more subjective, comprises the set of knowledge and experiences we deem crucial for students to glean due to some intrinsic value. I had argued that U.S. history, American politics, the foundations of capitalism, and basic economics are crucial for any citizen to be acquainted with simply to facilitate national conversation on the issues of our day. If naturalized citizens need to pass a civics test, why shouldn’t the rest of us demonstrate proficiency in the very same subject?

Here in YU, I would add Jewish History, Bible, and Hebrew to this list a well (all of which, thankfully, are still included in the general requirements). Few would argue with the notion that proud, practicing Jews should leave college with a basic awareness of our most fundamental text, our language, and our shared heritage.

Please keep in mind that in an ideal world, many subjects would be covered in high school, as I suggested in my previous piece. I had also proposed a placement exam to allow students already familiar with some of these topics to place out, allowing them to take more specialized courses to fulfill general requirements.

Now, can I outright prove that U.S. history is more important for students to know than any other history course? No. That is why my piece was simply an opinion, reflecting my personal thoughts as to what set of information is vital for every U.S. citizen to know. Others may have a different schedule of values they consider more essential than the courses I have listed, and would obviously advocate a different core curriculum. For example, there are strong cases to be made that all students should take logic, introduction to ethics, and introduction to major world religions. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Where this gets especially tricky is in the field of literature, where almost all agree to the importance of the field as a whole, yet there is a wide array of views concerning the particulars. Again, due to time constraints, judgment calls must be made. Some argue that it is the “Great Books” of western civilization which are paramount, similar to the “Contemporary Civilization” course integral to the core curriculum at Columbia College. Others might advocate other literature spanning different eras, genres, and thematic content. Regardless, nearly everyone agrees to the importance of imparting students with the textual and literary skills required for future self-study. It is hard to prove empirically that any particular view is correct, as there are no standardized criteria dictating which works are deemed to have utmost merit. Nothing is dogmatic beyond critique. Thus, the choice of which literature courses should be included in a core curriculum is largely left to personal preference, of which there are surely many.

My own view is that “Great Books” courses most definitely need to be part of the core curriculum, as they provide a survey of the works our Western civilization is founded on.[1] Students must become acquainted with the central texts which have shaped and fashioned the very social construct in which they live. Beyond that, I feel it is imperative that colleges expose their students to as many literary greats as possible. Again, divergent viewpoints might disagree as to which writers are considered truly “great” and which miss the cut. This debate is mostly subjective, however, assuming one remains within certain boundaries.

To remedy my admitted lack of research in my previous article, I will now analyze the syllabi of two courses in YU’s new core curriculum, both of which I think are less crucial than other potential courses. I will then evaluate two courses I feel are pretty much on target in what a core curriculum should be accomplishing. Again, this view is entirely subjective, and of course involves no empirical data. Further, it says nothing about the pedagogic abilities of any of the faculty teaching these courses; rather, it is strictly an evaluation of the content being offered in them, in light of the many other subjects YU students lack familiarity with.

Detective Stories: An investigation of detective fiction, the course seeks to analyze the genre from both literary and cultural perspectives, trying to ascertain its wider significance for society and the individual. Despite containing readings from some legendary authors such as Sophocles and Poe, this course remains somewhat narrow in its scope. I find it hard to insist that a profound understanding of detective stories falls under the ‘core’ set of knowledge students must unquestionably possess before they graduate.

The Roman Empire in Theory and Practice: As its title succinctly states, this course offers students the history of the Roman world, from its emperors to its cultural, religious, and political values. Both primary and secondary materials, including both text and visual resources, are presented. Yet, is an intimate knowledge of the Roman Empire truly a goal deserving of a “core” course, taking precedence over such things like U.S. or European history? Can most YU students genuinely claim to have already mastered those elementary disciplines in high school? To me, this course is excellent for history majors, or for other interested students who already exhibit a basic understanding of the aforementioned history courses.

Economics and the Human Good: This course attempts to “reunite” moral philosophy and political philosophy by studying how systems of political economy contribute to human happiness and prosperity. Students are exposed to major political and moral philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Bastiat, and Hayek, as well key contemporary thinkers in the field. Aside from giving students a firm grasp of how economics is intertwined with human ethics, this course provides essential awareness and understanding of the moral underpinnings of various economic systems including our own capitalism.

Arguments: Here, students learn how to examine and evaluate arguments, a fundamental skill for anyone who wishes to engage in sophisticated, meaningful discourse. Readings include such philosophical giants as Plato and Descartes. Although the course delves into particular arguments in the subjects of religion and ethics, the introduction to basic logic and theory of argument lays the foundation for rhetorical proficiency and rational critique.

Distinct conclusions about the very same courses offered in YU’s core curriculum will arise depending on one’s personal outlook; mine is just one of many out there. The inclusion of localized courses in the core curriculum may demonstrate an entirely different view of what a core curriculum should be accomplishing. Perhaps the goal is for students to simply take appealing courses that offer a certain set of valuable skills framed within interesting subject matter. If so, we should announce that this is what we’re doing and make sure not to characterize the new curriculum as comprising the utmost, fundamentally substantial, “core” knowledge students must absolutely be well-versed in. However, my conception of a core curriculum approximates the latter: namely, each course in the “core” must be of supreme import in providing the knowledge, exposure, and skills, essential to any educated Jewish American citizen. Some of the courses in YU’s new core curriculum I would classify as material suitable for fulfilling electives, since they do not represent the subject matter I feel a core curriculum ought to be striving for. Although the courses in our core curriculum may indeed bestow students with an array of useful academic skills, there must be a way to accomplish that very same goal while at the same time exposing students to more primary, essential disciplines they have yet to master.

[1] These works may include, but certainly are not limited to, the following authors: Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Cervantes, Galileo, Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Milton, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Burke, Jefferson, Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, and others.