Core Assumptions and Compromises (Part II)

Note: what follows is some summative reflection on what I've realized after spending the past three years revising the general education core at my institution. It's part aide-memoire, part wonk-fest, and part philosophical musing. Just wanted to warn the unwary.

I mentioned yesterday that all cores have built in assumptions. Some assume that exposure equals retention of essential content, some that sufficient levels of disciplinary ability can be acquired in 40 credit hours spread across multiple subjects, and others that cores provide arenas for personal growth and the development of desirable values or ethical commitments. Often cores claim to be some combination of all these optimistic aims.

A few problems make these assumptions unrealistic. First, most general education cores today do not require the depth and time on task to make content stick or to develop even minimal levels of disciplinary thinking in the various liberal arts. A 40-45 credit hour core split between 7-10 subjects just isn't enough to do the job well. Theoretically, we could expand the core, but the market imperatives on higher education make that unlikely to happen. The public views us as the credentialing arm of the private sector, which in large measure is an accurate description of what we do. Fewer and fewer students come for a true liberal arts education.

There's another problem, too. Engineering personal growth and the development of desirable values is an inexact science, one that often backfires. It often blurs the line between teaching and preaching, and let's face it: instilling pre-approved values in students runs counter to the very spirit of the liberal arts, which at their best ought to equip people to think for themselves. Heck, look to the Jesuits, the Marine Corps, or any number of high pressure religious cults if you want a model for instilling values. Those people know what they are doing.

So what can liberal arts cores reasonably accomplish given their limited size and tendency to be hodgepodges of introductory courses often designed for specific majors rather than general education? I've come to believe that even in its present form a well-designed general education core can still do a lot of valuable things. While it's true that exposure to a variety of liberal arts disciplines is unlikely to lead to mastery or a high level of content retention without a significant expansion of the core's size, requiring students to take courses in fields other than their major can help them to understand the relevance and usefulness of disciplinary perspectives. Non-biology majors may not ever think like biologists or remember what mitosis is in ten years after graduation, but they can understand why biology matters and even why some understanding of it is relevant to very important questions.

This latter point should not be overlooked. It's crucial for those of us teaching core classes to help students to see the relevance of our disciplines for answering fundamentally important questions. Too often we operate under the assumption that the value of our disciplines is self-evident. It's not, which becomes clear every time we hear students ask, "Why do I need to take this course when I'm not even in that major?" We must show students how our disciplines answer big questions. Without this primary understanding, what we teach is bound to seem meaningless and irrelevant.

There's a second and equally important reason for requiring students to take a variety of subjects in the core. Even in its attenuated state, a liberal arts education can still provide students with opportunities to discover new interests and passions. An accounting major may develop a passion for art history, a chemist may find that history is fascinating. Consequently, cores with discipline-specific requirements continue to perform a valuable function. They broaden the possible avenues of a student's intellectual development.

I also think that well-constructed cores can strengthen broad academic abilities common across disciplines: writing, oral communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy. Students get better when they practice skills repeatedly and in various contexts. I have to believe that an institution that systematically embeds and reiterates performance of these skills (at a common university-wide standard) is doing students a big favor. And this is very do-able.

Lastly, I believe that liberal arts cores can provide arenas for reflection, growth and the development of ethical commitments. I just don't think we can make it happen in any surefire way. What we can do is put meaningful opportunities before students. What they decide to do with these opportunities is up to them. The question for us is not whether we've made better people, but whether we've given them every opportunity to seriously reflect upon and articulate the kind of people they want to be. That there's no guarantee growth will happen is no reason not to put the opportunity out there.

The core we put together (and which goes before the faculty next week) is premised on the above assumptions. It has its fair share of compromises, but on the whole I feel pretty good about it.

'Nuff said.


Frida said…
but why must we endlessly "fix" the core? is it us? or them? it's them, isn't it?
Professor Quest said…
Well, times change. Sixty years ago few core curricula worried much about diversity or teaching about non-Western cultures? Fewer still had computer competencies. More to the point, who worried about assessment in 1995?

I've always had a notion that all cores ought to have built-in sunset clauses. They just need to go away every so many years so that a new generation of faculty members can rethink their necessity and purpose.

The last time we revised the core was 20 years ago, my first year teaching. I may have actually voted to adopt the old core, although I can't imagine I understood what I was voting on. Indeed, the number of people who were around for that vote is now in single digits. In the end,then, core revision is probably about us.

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