Coming back to core curriculum?

Nicholas Lemann published an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Case for a New Kind of Core”. Lemann is a former dean of Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and his intention is to strengthen liberal education through a return to core curriculum. What makes his proposal worth a closer look is that he actually proposes one, and critiques the previous attempt connected to AAC&U LEAP initiative. Finally, even though journalism in my opinion is not a liberal art, proposed curriculum is supposed to serve every avenue of college and graduate work by laying a foundation of what every educated person need to know. Or better still, do.

Let me start with the kernel of his argument, that strangely only starts at page six or so. Here is a list of eight one semester courses that are included in his proposal:

  • Information acquisition
  • Cause and Effect
  • Interpretation
  • Numeracy
  • Perspective
  • The Language of Form
  • Thinking in Time
  • Argument

To see this in perspective, Lemann’s core is methods, not content based. Therefore those eight courses are supposed to cover eight critical skills. It seems a bipartisan proposal, by on one hand avoiding any form of canonical knowledge (to the extent he proposes how this can be taught by various disciplinarian perspectives, and I would say stronger: in light of different values), and on the other by distancing itself from the 21-st century social issues agenda often pursued by the left-leaning institutions (think of American Diversity, or global cultures).

This proposal does not include any specific content courses, at least at the first glance. Therefore we do not have any of those: the Bible, DNA, coding, Great Books, public health, inequalities, scientific method, economics, foreign language, statistics, music, marketing, design, materials, visual planning etc., even though it is questionable if we should call somebody (college) educated if they have serious blanks in any of those. “What these courses” – says Lemann – “have in common is a primary commitment to teaching the rigorous (and also properly humble) pursuit of knowledge”. So they are supposed to lay the groundwork for future learning, and make students less likely to fall for blatant lies. At least this is my reading.

What I find the most striking, is that this list can be easily translated into a list of classic college courses that are fairly conservative:

  • Information acquisition – sociology of knowledge and a critique of sources
  • Cause and Effect – basic methodology
  • Interpretation – reading poetry
  • Numeracy – statistics
  • Perspective – epistemology
  • The Language of Form – painting and a frame
  • Thinking in Time – history
  • Argument – rhetoric

It is not clear why Lemann is so cautious about proposing them in such a form. Maybe because sounding obsolete would weaken his cause even before it is elaborated. Maybe. Maybe for strategic reasons not to alienate faculty and administration by proposing to offer a compulsory, core curriculum that is comprised of courses that on many campuses are given a short shrift, and they do not match the ambitions of the faculty. And remember, somebody has to teach them.

But maybe, and here I would like to turn to his critique of previous core curricula, the real reason is that this is not really new proposal. The most current approaches to general education are skills oriented: they try to capture the learning outcomes in terms of skills, and then ask students to select a number of courses from a skills-based distribution requirements. Lemann’s proposal does something similar, yet the skills are not defined by a human (reading, writing, speaking, counting etc.), but by a member of a knowledge community (critiquing sources, explaining causation, understanding relations, understanding assumptions, analysing context etc.).

What Lemann does not like in previous (yet contemporary) core curricula is that they put old wines in new bottles, overplay learning outcomes and assessment, use big words and pedagogy to obscure the content. But his proposal also uses big words (it is just OECD-EDU-fancier
“numeracy” than old-school “justice”), discusses just as much assingments as rationale, and does not explicitly say such courses should be designed anew and by whom. The fact that he does not say a word on pedagogy, which is I am afraid not a simple administrative issue of how many students and how much do they speak, is the only distinction.

This proposal offers eight semester-long courses that are supposed to be taken over first two years of college, and comprise just under half of undergraduate education at that time. If Lemann is correct to assume that high school graduates typically lack those skills, there is little point in offering them college-level courses before they acquire them.

This might be said to be an issue of completion – although Lemann is surprisingly ignorant as he sees 60% six year completion rate of a four year education as a result of lack of student preparation, and not skyrocketing debt. Bona fide social justice approach says: give them the tools to succeed in college. If so, this core curriculum should span over the first year, and fill the whole curriculum of the first year of college.

If this proposal does not explicly state that, it undermines the other assumption that a curriculum reform is needed, so rising cost and rising discount rate of this cost. Families do not believe they should go into so much debt just to have their children educated, especially in liberal arts. I strongly feel that Lemann does not believe that he could convince parents to pay so much for a year of basic-skills courses rather than something that said parents might not know themselves (and therefore feel more okay with paying a high price for). This makes Lemann’s proposal weak, as every revolutionary proposal based on compromise from day one.

More in that line, proposed curriculum does not speak anything about abolishing existing distribution requirements, which would be even more controversial form the perspective of faculty. But if we want to be consequential, we might put such general knowledge-oriented skills first, and then well-roundedness second. It would most likely squeeze out either the major, or the electives. As long as colleges are not willing to offer a higher course load (either six courses a semester, or summer terms because why not), there is always horse trading in any curriculum reform. Not making a case what we put out and why makes for a weak proposal.

A revolutionary proposal would look like this:

  • a year of skills based courses
  • a year of basic courses referring to most critical achievements of the past in a range of disciplines
  • a year of not-so-intro classes to 8 big areas of (academic) knowledge
  • a final year with concentrated classes in the new major, with a year long, team-based yet individually assessed research, ending with a public defense of a thesis

This would be not a small tweak in the system, but a fundamental change in how we perceive higher education. There would be some sort of logical progression between the years, with developing the mind capacities, then furnishing it with what influences the present in many ways, then taking students on a tour of current knowledge so they can see what excites them most, and finally doing a year of demanding research, with both acquiring and producing new knowledge and proving itself in front of the others as expert. Such curriculum would have no place for professional courses, which should rightly belong to graduate school. While it would not fully do away with hand-holding the poor, lost students by a concerned faculty (see it in Lehmann’s piece?), it would also challenge them to do the things they might not immediately like rather than opt out or postpone. It would make a lot of sense to offer team-based, yet single courses without the option for electives, because the principle of electives is based on a subject able to do the choices, and if Lemann is right, current students are not (even if it is not their fault). And if we still believe higher education works on a principle of Enlightment, critical thinking, or active citizenship, we must put our responsibility as educators first, and students freedom second, to both make college valuable and seen as such. After all, such a college would not be for everybody (this applies to Lemann’s, but he seems unaware), but it would offer something specific rather than anything goes.

Skills are not enough. We should stop pretending that you could learn writing in any class that makes you submit a written assignment. We should ask our students more. But we also have to make college a full time experience again, and create a financial system that would make it available to everybody. Finally, only after we disjoin the link between failing students and financial stability of institutions, we might make education seem worthy its price.

Liberal arts would not be saved by a tweak in the currently dominating system of not-so-small-cafeteria-option set of classes offered to students in between sport, drinking and holidays. The power of the research model has extended to colleges, and is increasingly putting a premium on mimicking serious research at a less advanced level, to the detriment of both students and professors. Career anxiety is, by definition, not entering any marriage with liberal arts. We need more thinking in a line that Lemann proposes – but this design has to be bold. For me, the measure of boldness would be for example requiring students to learn a foreign language. To make sure this language is foreign to all of them – so they are actually learning, not stratifying in terms of background – we might think of a dead, superficial, or specialist one. Or maybe a combination.

The subject of the university has never been the world around, nor the student. So Lemann got this right that he tries to put knowledge first, even though much of his concern seems superficial, not to say journalistic. We might enhance a curriculum like presented above by designing courses so that they can build on students skills brought from extensive use of mobile devices, or relate the course matter to pressing issues of today’s world. But the rationale to have something in the curriculum, or not have it, should be based in what we know about knowledge – nothing else. Not the major, not the cost, not completion anxiety, not the fear of Trump century, not the shortcomings of students, not what we used to have in whatever imaginary past of the universities.

Maybe no existing institution is ready and capable to make a revolutionary change in the curriculum; maybe we need a new one.

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