Does Anyone Care What They Study?

For a large number of Americans who go to college, getting the degree is the thing that matters. That credential gets them past the screening now used by many employers to keep non-college applicants from bothering them. Because few employers care what the person studied (much less how well he or she learned it), lots of students just go for the courses and instructors that are easy.

Wishing to keep their customers happy, most of our colleges and universities have abandoned anything resembling a core curriculum. If students want a huge smorgasbord of courses to choose from at will, fine! At many schools these days, about the only course that is required is something on that greatest of academic fads, “diversity.”

A small number of colleges, however, still believe that it does matter what their students take. In an article published in the September 3rd Wall Street Journal, James Piereson took a careful look at two of them—Columbia and Harvard.

Columbia has had pretty much the same core curriculum since 1919. It consists of seven semester-long courses that require students to read great books dealing with our civilization and literature and to experience some of Western civilization’s highest artistic creations. Those are demanding courses, but Piereson writes that they are quite popular with most of the students and the professors who teach them.

Students who graduate from Columbia do not just have a college credential. Thanks to its core curriculum, they have learned a great deal about our civilization and culture. And in the course of doing so, no doubt they have significantly improved their abilities in reading, writing, and reasoning. (Many colleges pay lip service to “critical thinking” these days, but don’t require courses that actually call for it.)

Harvard, on the other hand, has a “general education” requirement that has been in a state of flux. The school recently adopted a new program to replace one that had been in place since 1978, but often debated and criticized.

The old curriculum called for courses in 11 different fields; the new one whittles it down to eight areas with nice-sounding names like Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding and Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning. Is it an improvement?

One of Harvard’s most outspoken senior faculty members, government professor Harvey Mansfield, dismisses the new general education requirements with adjectives like “insipid” and “vacuous.” His root criticism is that Harvard still gets the justification for having a core curriculum wrong. The faculty report accompanying the revised program says that the objective of college education is to help students “choose for themselves what principles will guide them.”

That gets things backwards, Mansfield argues, because students need to understand key principles before they can make good choices. Despite all the years of deliberation over it, Harvard’s new curriculum seems to be, to borrow a title from Shakespeare, much ado about nothing.

Harvard’s general education requirements may be far less than ideal, but at least they’re an attempt at ensuring that students don’t go through their college years without any exposure to some of the great thoughts, debates, and creations of the human mind. At many colleges and universities, students are merely required to select from long lists of courses that satisfy the “distribution requirements.” That is, students pick one or two humanities courses, one or two math or science courses, one or two social science courses, and so on.

As a result, students get a hodge-podge of eminently forgettable material. They end up with an educational credential, but precious little education.

So why don’t more schools do what Columbia has been successfully doing all these years?  A few have moved towards a serious core, but Piereson points out an obstacle. “The growing specialization of academia,” he writes, “makes it more difficult to nourish and recruit the kinds of generalists who can effectively teach sections of the Core.”

That’s right. For decades, academics have been routing themselves into subfields of subfields. New Ph.D.s in English, for example, don’t want to teach a broad survey course on American literature. They want to teach in the specialty they’ve developed through their dissertation, maybe something like “gender hegemony in the novels of Somerset Maugham.”

Still, with the huge excess number of people who want college teaching jobs, if a school leader really wanted a good core curriculum, it wouldn’t be very hard to say to current or prospective faculty members, “We ARE going to have these courses and they WILL be taught well.”  There is a buyer’s market for college faculty. Even though many professors would rather just teach courses revolving around the minutiae they know best, if getting and keeping a position means mastering the instruction of general courses, most will do so.

Maybe that could even become a new specialty.

If a college president turns aside requests for the institution of a serious core with reference to the supposed trouble in finding good instructors, that’s a weak excuse. The real reason why few college presidents are trying to emulate Columbia is that they don’t think it matters much what the students study. As long as the classrooms are filled, what’s the point in fretting over the content taught in those classrooms?

Columbia is where it is because long ago its academic leaders believed that it most certainly did matter what courses students took. Piereson names its three luminaries, John Erskine, Mark Van Doren, and Jacques Barzun. Unfortunately, there aren’t many like them around any more.

For readers, especially prospective college students and their parents, who want to find out whether schools they’re interested in have strong or weak general education requirements, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has compiled a host of information here.