A thought about core curricula

The genetic biologist who has written an open letter to the head of SUNY Albany, on the occasion of his cutting of their French, Italian, Russian, theater, and classics departments, has gotten attention from a number of my friends today. He argues eloquently that science without the humanities becomes soulless and misguided; he illustrates with a number of parables from European literature. He argues also that the president might have gone to the faculty to ask where they were able to cut costs. With both points, I agree.

But early on, he makes one point with which I take issue. He almost lost my support here:

the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

As a Hampshire alumna and a doctor of education, I am uncomfortable with the insistence that we return to a core curriculum. (As a Columbia alumna who trained with classicists and historians, I expect to have my ears boxed for saying so, but I hope my professors would hear me out.) I believe students learn better when they can connect their lessons to what they already know, and I do think they would get more out of humanities courses were they allowed, as Hampshire students are, some leeway in their distribution requirements. Hampsters were given instructions to either complete a project or take a couple of courses in one of four areas (natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, and cognition and cultural studies), and left to decide what that would be. This was a happy medium, and it made for interdisciplinary research, which Petsko acknowledges is popular (for good reasons) in universities these days.

I agree that undergraduates generally do not have enough experience to make brilliant choices when they make their own curricula. There was, however, a value to failing to pick the right courses. It hurt; it often felt like a waste of time; but I wouldn’t have traded the insight it gave me into academic disciplines and why each chooses its approach to research. Not to mention that these choices were always made in dialog with academic advisors, never alone.

SUNY Albany is killing off its Russian department; somehow this sparked an odd idea for me. I thought, “what use is Russian language after the Cold War? How could someone use it in my field?” One place it might be very useful would be in computer security. A great deal of malware and computer crime is hatched on Russian-language online forums. A computer security expert who could read and communicate in these forums might have a bit of an edge.

My idea is this: If students need faculty guidance, why not make that guidance more available beyond the expertise of their own individual advisors? Why not have a lightweight digital way for science faculty to recommend complementary courses in some other part of the distribution requirement, like arts and humanities? If faculty could tag other faculty’s courses as tangentially relevant, it would not only give students guidance in selecting courses that could help them build on what they know; it might also foster more interdisciplinary work among faculty, and make for an interesting way to visualize faculty networks. Core curricula may be a fine way to communicate what a society wants a student to know in order to be a citizen, but when they consist of a list of specific texts and particular courses they are insensitive to students’ own trains of thought and lines of inquiry. (And at the level of primary and secondary school, attempts to use curriculum to transmit societal values probably contributes to what one educational researcher called “Christmas tree syndrome,” in which more and more demands are added to teachers’ syllabi until they collapse under the weight.)

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