No Core Curriculum Here

What do the following courses have in common?

The History of Hip Hop Culture

Bollywood Cinema

Cowboys, Samurai, and Rebels in Film and Fiction

Love, Sex, and Marriage in Soviet Culture

Some readers may have guessed that those are courses taught at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Yes, but the answer is more disturbing than that: they are General Education courses. Chapel Hill students fulfill the graduation requirements outside their major by choosing among such courses.

For those who remember general education in the distant past, let me spell it out a little more clearly. Courses such as Introduction to Sexuality Studies and American Environmental Policy replace broad survey courses like Survey of World History, American History before 1865, and American History from 1865 to the Present.

The report by Jay Schalin and Jenna Ashley Robinson of the Pope Center, “General Education at UNC-Chapel Hill,” describes the current program (listing a lot of courses, but nowhere near the 4700). “UNC-Chapel Hill’s general education program follows an all-too-typical ‘smorgasbord’ approach,” the report says. It is “unstructured” and “unwieldy.”

The paper contends that UNC-Chapel Hill got into this situation because the current system “exists as much for the good of the faculty and various campus political constituencies as it does for students.” The authors say that many faculty members regard the GenEd curriculum “as a means to advance their own department’s courses and even their own narrow fields of research.”

In addition, the GenEd program tends to “promote particular political beliefs and intellectual trendiness.” For example, the trend toward multiculturalism that pervades campuses today leads to a focus on groups, especially national groups, rather than on the generalized experiences and knowledge that prepare honorable adults and knowledgeable citizens.

Schalin and Robinson propose a different curriculum. They would eliminate the multitude of narrow courses in favor of those that meet a standard of “broadly important knowledge.” There would still be around 700 to choose from.

The report does more. It discusses what a general education curriculum ought to be. In the authors’ view, a core education in the twenty-first century should impart three things:  “One is the ability to reason; another is an awareness of the world’s most important ideas, the ones that have affected the course of history and the modern world; the third is a high degree of cultural awareness.” (“Like it or not, we are part of the West and draw almost all of our culture from it.”)

To achieve those goals, students should be acquainted with logic, quantitative reasoning, philosophy, Western civilization, comparative religious systems, British and American literature, and the U.S. founding. The authors explain their reasons for these courses, one by one. For example, “Perhaps the best way to educate people to think deeply and consider the long-term implications actions and events is to introduce them to those questions directly through a single, required philosophy course.”

UNC’s failure to have a coherent approach to what a college graduate should know is not unusual. Today’s general education program is the result of a long history of confusion about the purpose of college—a confusion first sown in the 1870s by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard.

As Russell Nieli has outlined in his paper From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker, for its first two centuries American higher education had “one simple and overriding goal: the production of morally earnest Christian gentlemen, well versed in liberal learning and in the classics of Greco-Roman and Biblical high culture.” Educational life had religion at its core.

This was even true of public colleges, says Nieli. Early in its history, the University of North Carolina (founded in 1789) required students to attend religious services twice a day and have Sunday “evening examinations ‘on the general principles of morality and religion’.” The university’s view of the world was as God’s creation and of morality as a reflection of His purpose.

But the center broke apart in the 1870s when Charles Eliot introduced an electives system at Harvard. Recognizing that scientific knowledge was proliferating—and seeing the German scientific university as a model—Eliot made it easier for students to pursue academic specialties, setting the stage for the modern research university.

At the same time, Eliot undermined the concept of a unified body of knowledge. Colleges that modeled themselves after Harvard (even today, most do) copied the elective system. A half-century ago when I attended Wellesley, there was no core—only distribution requirements that were light on science and math. A remnant of the distant past was that we had to take a Bible course. And a 2003 Pope Center study of the “core” requirements in the UNC system found a “grab bag of elective courses” at most schools (with North Carolina Central being an outstanding exception).

The electives approach was not fully satisfactory. In 1945 a blue-ribbon committee of Harvard faculty issued a famous report spelling out the problems of the electives system. “A supreme need of America education is for a unifying purpose and idea,” it said. “We are faced with a diversity of education which, if it has many virtues, nevertheless works against the good of society by helping to destroy the common ground of training and outlook on which any society depends.”

Unfortunately, the Harvard experts never quite figured out what to do about the problem, although their report did lead to two courses at Harvard that required students to read some of the “Great Books” (those works that Matthew Arnold summarized as “the best that has been thought and said”).

Today, a few schools still take the idea of a core seriously. Some are Catholic schools that retain a coherent view of the world, based on divine faith and its theology, and see the classics as important in understanding and articulating that view. But their curricula are often “core-lite.” That’s why the decision of Belmont Abbey, a Catholic school in North Carolina that introduced a foundational core, is worth paying attention to. Its required courses now include:

Rhetoric  I  & II; Introduction to Scripture;  Introduction to Theology;  Classic Texts in Political Philosophy I & II;  Western Civilization I & II, Literary Classics of the Western Tradition I & II ; and The U. S. Constitution.

After that, students have some choices in math, science, social science, and fine arts.

While not religious, Columbia University still has the basic core it created in the early 20th century. Its website describes it as “the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major.” Courses include Contemporary Civilization, Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, Masterpieces of Western Art,  and Frontiers of Science.

But the numbers of such universities are few. “Core curriculum” is more a hope than a reality. Perhaps the Pope Center report will encourage UNC to take a second look at the purpose of its curriculum. And if it doesn’t, perhaps other schools will.