By: Avraham Sosnowik  | 

Criteria Mysteria: A (Highly) Critical Analysis of YU's Course Requirement System

Over my time in YU, there has been almost constant controversy over the YC core curriculum. Many argue that the very idea of the core curriculum is pointless, and that all a student really needs is their major. I don’t want to talk about this point. In fact, let us assume that the core curriculum is a vital part of the education of each undergraduate. My point is to talk about how the core designations are assigned. Now I know what you’re thinking: here's yet another article pointlessly complaining about YU. What if I promise not to talk about misogyny and the libraries, or even attempt to diagnose a fundamental problem in YU’s ethos? Now that you’re wondering what’s even left to talk about, let me begin.

I took Philosophy of Law in Fall 2018. It was the ideal course: interesting material, an engaging professor, and nice classmates. For those of you new to YC, the core system used to be different (if you aren’t familiar with the old system, read this).  Anyway, when I took Philosophy of Law, back in my day, it was cross-listed under philosophy and political science, but not the HBSI subject.

Fast forward to Spring of 2020: Philosophy of Law is being offered again in the fall, this time tagged with the HBSI attribute. I was excited when I saw that, thinking that maybe I retroactively fulfilled my HBSI requirement. I was planning on taking that core this summer so I would be on pace to graduate in January, but maybe now I wouldn’t have to. Sadly, this was not so. Not because YU doesn’t allow retroactive fulfillment; they do. Instead, I was told that the two Philosophy of Law courses are “significantly different.” To be fair, the course I took and this current course are taught by different professors, and the syllabi are not identical. However, when Intro to Bible was still a requirement, the courses taught by Professors Carmy and Bernstein were not identical, yet they still fulfilled the same requirement. Academic Advising explained to me that the current Philosophy of Law course was designed “specifically to conform to the requirements of the core curriculum.” I’ll admit that I was immediately skeptical of this claim. They didn’t elaborate on the rubric they’re following or how a course listed under the same name and course ID as its iteration from two years prior could be significantly different. 

Despite my skepticism, I generally believe that it is incumbent upon us to trust the administration unless there is reason to believe otherwise. If they say there are some concrete criteria that they use to determine whether a course fulfills a certain requirement, then we should believe them. Here’s the issue, though: when you look at the courses that have a common attribute, it is extremely unclear what this rubric might be.

After my request was denied, I went back to look up more classes to see what cores were available. I decided that I would compare the different courses tagged with the same attribute and see if I could reverse engineer whatever standards the administration claims to be following. When you look, and I encourage you to do so (if only for the humor), expect to be confused. 

Take, for example, the wide variety of courses that fulfill the Cultures Over Time (CUOT) requirement. When I think about a CUOT course, I normally envision something like the one I took, Wholly Moses, where we looked at artistic depictions of Moses throughout history. Or perhaps something like Media Revolutions: From Scroll to Screen, which, to my knowledge, goes through the technology of media throughout history. On YU’s Core website, they describe the CUOT as exploring “the distinctiveness of the past in relationship to the present through an investigation of values, traditions, modes of thinking and modes of behavior of one or more cultures, beginning before 1900.” In other words, a course that has Syms guys rolling their eyes and gets blacklisted by the Volozhin Yeshiva because the professor said the word “modern” without the “ish” suffix. You get the picture.

Much to my surprise, there were courses fulfilling this requirement that have seemingly nothing to do with culture or time. For example, the Philosophy department is offering a course on Kurt Gödel’s theorems on the incompleteness of mathematics. For those of you who have no idea what that is, trust me when I tell you it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with CUOT (beyond technically fulfilling the core requirement). Certainly, Kurt Gödel (born 1906) lived in a culture, and undoubtedly it took him quite a bit of time to come up with his theorems, but the similarities appear to stop there. Interestingly, Intermediate Spanish I also fulfills the CUOT requirement. Why? I don’t know. By the way, Elementary Spanish I doesn’t fulfill the CUOT requirement. Why? Good question. Still don’t know.

Perhaps now you’re wondering, “Ok, the range of courses which satisfy common requirements is a bit strange. What’s your point?” Here’s my point: how can a course on Gödel’s theorems, Intermediate Spanish I, and Media Revolutions all overlap enough to fulfill the CUOT requirement, but Philosophy of Law and Philosophy of Law don’t overlap enough to both be considered an HBSI? 

At first, I tried to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Maybe my situation is just a one time mistake — after all, none of us are perfect. But when I vented my frustration to my friends, I learned that I am far from the only one frustrated with the seemingly arbitrary system of attribute designation. Next semester, both at Stern and YC, there is a team-taught course called “Shakespeare, Bible, & Political Thought.” This course, tagged with the Straus Center attribute, is listed as an Honors course at Stern — but not at YC. The course will be taught by Dr. Neil Rogachevsky and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik at YC, and Dr. Matthew Holbriech and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik at Stern. Now, unless this reflects an aspersion cast on Dr. Rogachevsky's pedigree (simply ridiculous), or Stern's lower standards for Honors courses (hopefully ridiculous), we have yet another puzzling case of seemingly identical courses with an unexplained distinction.

In addition, the courses being offered in the fall that do have the HBSI attribute don’t fit YU’s own definition of the HBSI requirement, namely that “Students learn to interpret and analyze qualitative and quantitative data through the approaches of at least two social science disciplines to a substantive area of interest.” I suppose the “two social science disciplines” in Principles of Economics are macro and micro.

Even when there isn’t a specific issue, the designations of these requirements don’t seem to follow any consistent rhyme or reason. As an English and Philosophy major, I’m almost always in the middle of writing a paper. Some of my courses were tagged as Writing Intensive, but I wrote one paper the entire semester. Others demanded weekly writing assignments or four to five large papers over the semester, but weren’t deemed WI. In fact, on the WI website (yeah, it has its own website) it states that a course only has to have one writing assignment to be considered “intensive.” My guess is these aren’t the only instances and that I’m not the only person who has experienced the seeming randomness of the requirement qualifications. The criteria for a course to fulfill a given requirement is at best obscure and at worst completely arbitrary. 

Perhaps now you understand why I sound like I just heard someone say “YU and Stern” instead of “YC, Stern, and Syms.” YU’s rejection of my request to retroactively count Philosophy of Law as my HBSI requirement seems completely baseless. The criteria for determining course requirements listed on YU’s website are blatantly ignored when deciding which courses get which attributes, and we are left to wonder if there are any criteria that the administration actually follows. What are the administration’s goals concerning these requirements? How are the classes that fulfill those requirements accomplishing those goals? I don’t have any idea how to precisely answer these questions, which is itself an indictment of YU's general requirement framework. I learned in my Philosophy of Law course that for a system of rules to gain respect it must be fair and true to itself, or in other words, have integrity. YU’s system doesn’t even follow its own descriptions of their core classes. Thus, the requirement system, as it stands, completely lacks integrity.

However, I’m not just ideologically frustrated by the superficial requirements system and an administration which stubbornly defends it. The difference between retroactively counting Philosophy of Law as an HBSI and having to take another course amounts to my enrollment in an HBSI over the summer. The requirement attributions may not seem like such impactful decisions to the faculty — but it can carry significant financial repercussions for students.

Anyone who has heard their FYWR professor breathe once, knows the English department supports the core curriculum so that students will be “well-rounded.” As an English major, I’m no exception. I believe in all of YU’s requirements; but for this system to work in a way that’s truly beneficial to students, there needs to be a set of strict, concrete and publicly available criteria for any and all course designations. I understand that, at some point, those of us that aren’t educators just need to trust that the educators know what they’re doing. But if the students who actually believe in the requirements don’t know what the administration wants them to take away from these courses, shouldn’t that be corrected? Won’t we have a better chance of getting the full value of these requirements if we go in knowing what the goals are? I’m not an educator, but speaking from my experience being educated (admittedly, anecdotal evidence at best) the answer is yes. I will learn more if I know what I am trying to learn.

Anyway, the article is over, I kept my promises. Macro and micro, here I come.

Photo Caption: The Wilf campus
Photo Credit: The Commentator