Core Assumptions and Compromises (Part 1)

All general education core curriculum are based on assumptions (or wild guesses--take your pick). One common assumption is that there exists some requisite body of knowledge essential for all students. Sometimes--as in the case of people like E.D. Hirsch--this essential knowledge (or "cultural literacy") comprises a kind of critical mass of facts and shared understanding that underpins and makes possible meaningful intellectual activity.

Like I said, cores are the product of assumptions, and the cultural literacy model makes some really big ones. First, it assumes that a pluralistic and ethnically-diverse society like the United States can come to consensus on which facts, perspectives and historical events merit inclusion in the content. Anyone who has ever designed a course by committee understands what a big assumption that is. Having to hammer out what to include in a course with a room full of academics (each with a strong opinion and scholarly agenda) is one of the more maddening exercises one can imagine.

More importantly, though, the cultural literacy model tends to assume that its essential content will be retained. But few people retain content if they aren't actively using it over an extended period. Indeed, lasting retention requires longer and deeper exposure to a subject than is usually allotted to meeting a core requirement.

Consider the case of algebra. I've seen longitudinal studies that measure performance on a basic algebra test. Students who have taken a single course in algebra will see a decline in their performance that begins about a month after the course ends, and this decline will continue on the same downward trajectory for 50 years. It's true that students who did well in the course will perform better than those who performed poorly, but their rate of decline parallels those who did poorly. On the the other hand, those who have taken a sequence of math courses leading up to and beyond calculus have almost no or only a slight drop off in performance over 50 years. This isn't to say cores can't teach any content; it's only to say that the assumption that content will be retained from single-shot exposures is probably flawed.

The problem of insufficient time on task also confronts those who assume that cores should be ramp-ups to disciplinary mastery. In other words, courses in the core ought to introduce people to the disciplinary habits of mind unique to given fields. Students in history, for example, should be taught how to think like historians, students in science like scientists, etc. Unfortunately, study after study in cognitive science reveals that thinking late in training is not simply a ramped-up version of thinking early in training. They're different beasts altogether. The implication for teaching here is obvious: no one-shot, semester-long course can assure that students will think like anything like experts. The "experts" have had a whole lot more practice.

Could the "time on task" problem be solved? Theoretically yes, but practically no. A curriculum with challenging and reiterative sequences of courses for each discipline could take students deep enough into training and assure retention of content. Imagine four to five carefully-sequenced courses each in history, science, math, literature, social science, art... ( 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!) Such a core might amount to 80-90 percent of an undergraduate degree, leaving the last 10-20 percent for career training. I mean, really. How long does it take to learn accounting or how to sell tires? Sadly, such a solution is not marketable to today's students and their parents, who--rightly or wrongly--see education mostly through the narrow lens of career preparation.

The bottom line is that most general education cores do not do a particularly good job of teaching content that lasts or even minimal disciplinary competence in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. Consequently, most cores are compromises. They are notionally serious about turning out extremely well-educated people with well-rounded minds, but they can't actually do this in the current market for higher education. The public isn't buying that product. So some feint at a liberal arts education is retained, although, like a vestigial organ, it no longer serves its original purpose. Look closely at most cores and you'll probably see a patchwork of skill-based courses like composition, applied math and speech along with a whole lot of courses designed for specific departments that are "double dipping" as core offerings.

But perhaps cores exist for another reason. Perhaps they exist as arenas for self-discovery, values clarification, or the development of beneficial attitudes. The core, then, is not an end unto itself, but a means for turning out ethical, open-minded and socially responsible people. Historically this idea has informed the work of thinkers like John Dewey, who wanted to create learning experiences that strengthened democratic institutions and better equipped students for the responsibilities of self-government. This idea recurs in more recent attempts to inculcate in students a commitment to tolerance, multicultural understanding, environmentalism, what have you.

I confess a certain fondness for Dewey's project, but I'm also aware of its critics. Not the least of whom were Walter Lippmann, a critic in Dewey's day, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who profoundly doubted that we could ever teach or preach our way to a brighter tomorrow. In the end, effectively and consistently engineering attitudinal shifts in students remains an inexact science. Moreover, qualities like a commitment to diversity, tolerance or multiculturalism are difficult to measure. At best, cores can put opportunities for reflection and change before students, but Lippmann and Niebuhr were probably right: we cannot manufacture better people who in turn create better societies. The idea that we can may be the biggest of the many big assumptions about what any educational curriculum can accomplish.

So what can a core reasonably accomplish (with the emphasis on reasonable)? It's a good question. I think I'll tackle it tomorrow. Time to hoist a Guinness.

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