Hollow at the Core

North Carolina State University is adopting a new general education curriculum this summer. The new standards say a lot about the direction N. C. State specifically and academia in general are taking. Unfortunately, this new direction is about trendiness, relaxed standards, and political correctness. The changes might serve the political and administrative desires of many in the academic community, but they neither fulfill the needs of students nor adhere to the purposes of a university core curriculum.

A general education curriculum is supposed to make certain that graduating students have received a “well-rounded” education, that they have been exposed to a wide range of important ideas. In a 2004 report, George Leef of the Pope Center created a list of the main purposes of a general education core. They are:

  • To help students to develop crucial habits of mind,” such as a spirit of inquiry, logical thinking, and a regard for the proper evaluation of evidence.
  • To make students more literate, meaning to make them more proficient in their reading, writing, and speaking.
  • To familiarize students with mathematics and the statistical evaluation of data.
  • To should provide students with a sense of history and framework of time.
  • To give students an understanding of science, and especially of scientific method.
  • To introduce students to the world of art and aesthetics.

To this list, two more purposes could be added: to create a common cultural identity and to ensure that students have a proper understanding of the American civic or political processes.

The current core is far from ideal when compared with those standards. Previous changes have already pushed the general education curriculum a long way in the wrong direction.

One major structural flaw is State’s “smorgasbord-style” approach to general education that gives the students a huge assortment of courses to select from. For example, instead of requiring a specific important course that all students must take, such as Western Civilization or American History, the current requirements merely said that students had to take a history, philosophy, or religion course. Students are then offered a wide array of 66 courses to choose from, many with an extremely narrow scope (such as HI/AFS 275: Introduction to History of South and East Africa), and at least one that borders on the silly: HON 341: Time Travel.

The smorgasbord approach is essentially a cop-out—it is almost as if the university is afraid to say, “this is what we feel you should know.” Who knows better what basic knowledge is essential—18-21 year-olds or the university’s scholars? Or perhaps, rather than a cop-out, it is a symptom of the plague of relativity sweeping the campuses, in which all knowledge, all cultures, all beliefs are of equal value.

But the new core takes the smorgasbord concept even further. For example, there are no longer requirements to take one literature course and one history course. Instead, students must simply take two “humanities” courses from among the different liberal arts disciplines.

Thus, beginning next fall, an entering freshman will be able to graduate without taking a single history or literature course. This lack of a purposeful history requirement can have far-reaching effects on the way future graduates will think—and for society. The famous George Santayana quote, “[T]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” seems especially pertinent right now, as our nation considers nationalizing various aspects of our banking and industry despite that policy’s long record of failure.

Another problem with not requiring a broad history survey course, such as Western or Eastern Civilization, or American History, is that many young people enter college without a mental time-line of history the way earlier generations have (or had). This is likely because primary and secondary education have de-emphasized pairing great events, people, and ideas with specific dates and eras. A history survey course requirement directly addresses that problem—but courses that fill the new humanities requirements such as WGS 492, Theoretical Issues in Women’s and Gender Studies or PHI 214, Issues in Business Ethics do not.

The current core already lacks strong writing or communications requirements, largely due to a 2003 reduction from nine to seven credits. Before then, students had to take two three-credit “freshman comp” courses and a three-credit course in either advanced composition, upper level foreign languages, or speech. In 2003, the two freshmen comp classes were turned into one four-credit course.

But starting this summer, the new core will even eliminate the more advanced three-credit course. Out of the nine communications credits required in 2003, only the one four-credit “freshman comp” course will be left. This is despite the fact that the business leaders who advised the UNC Tomorrow Commission emphasized that the poor writing and speaking skills of recent college graduates is a severe problem that needs attention. The decline in the communications requirements for all students will only exacerbate this problem.

N.C. State, however, claims that they will address the decrease in writing instruction by making new requirements called “Communication in the Major” and “Technology Fluency.” In these fuzzy “writing-across-the-curriculum” approaches, the various departments embed writing requirements in the major subject courses. The idea is that students will develop language skills that are specific to their major field.

But this tactic is likely to be a swamp of inefficiency. The teaching of composition is a highly specialized skill, best accomplished by somebody with considerable experience in getting the key concepts across. Professors who have little (or no) expertise in writing instruction (and perhaps poor language skills themselves) cannot be expected to take the place of such specialists. Many will be tempted to ignore their students bad writing to focus on their primary subject.

And it is not just writing and history that will suffer with the new core. Achieving any of the “purposes” cited above will be made more difficult by other damaging revisions, such as the reduction in the credits required in the natural sciences from eleven credits to seven and the required laboratory courses from two to one.

This diminished exposure to the hard facts and precise logic of science can only hurt the development of thought processes in those students who take few quantitative courses. Humanities majors, and to a lesser extent social science majors, often deal with imagination, conjecture, and theory without empirical evidence. In the past, general education requirements in quantitative subjects have introduced and reinforced reality-based thought, such as cause and effect. The new general education requirements will offer less of a challenge to the humanities majors’ “constructed” knowledge—and make it more likely that they will accept without question silly, superficial, or absurd notions.

Science and technical majors face a situation similar to that of their counterparts in the humanities. They will get less exposure to cultural knowledge because of a cut in the credits required in the Humanities and Social Sciences from 21 to 15 (two classes).

One of the important justifications for subsidizing higher education is that students are made more aware of the culture and of the great ideas. A college education is supposed to make students think more deeply, not to merely mass-produce technicians with no concern about the direction society takes. But the sum total of the changes, particularly the reduction from 50 general education credits to 39, will tend to narrow the focus of an education, dividing students into their vocational specialties. These changes are fraught with potential negative effects for society, considering that technical degrees are often a springboard to important decision-making positions in the research, government and corporate worlds.

Yet it appears that the new core is not meant to have students completely avoid thinking about the world—it just encourages them to think in shallow, politically correct terms. Two new requirements, “U.S. Diversity” and “Global Knowledge,” appear to be directed toward this end. These can be satisfied without taking additional courses, but by doubling up on other classes that are classified as “USD” or “GK.” The choices for GK courses offer a fair sampling of traditional, rigorous humanities and social science classes, but the USD courses are a mix of race and gender studies courses very likely to be infused with a radical political message.

A new requirement for two courses in “interdisciplinary perspectives” is also highly political. It offers trendy, eco-warrior-inspired courses such as HON 361, Eco-Realism: Human Nature, Politics, and Ecological Constraints, and exceedingly narrow courses that might have meaning for a doctoral candidate who already knows the basics of a subject and wishes to delve much deeper, but are, for undergraduates, merely a way to avoid weightier topics, such as IDS 211, Eating through American History.

There is a German word to describe what N.C. State has done to its core: “verschlimbesserung.” It means an intended improvement that actually make things worse. The switch from the study of traditional culture and the study of the natural world to diversity and multidisciplinary courses shifts the general education curriculum away from a rigorous objective examination of the natural world to one that promotes either a specific set of political beliefs or lightweight pseudo-knowledge. It eliminates instruction in the very skills that aid in deep thought and problem-solving, and substitutes shallow attempts to educate without real effort by either students or professors. It seems to be one more move intended to produce politically correct individuals who know very little outside their own specialty, but who feel, by virtue of having sat in some classrooms, that they know it all.