By John Sener
I am struggling to settle on an answer, to be honest – you might say I’m lacking a certain “esprit de core” in terms of being an advocate for a core curriculum.
It’s pretty clear that I am not the only one struggling with this issue. In
“Eight Ways to Get Higher Education into Shape” (Washington Post, 20 Feb. 2011), higher education correspondent Daniel de Vise identified “reviving the core curriculum” as one of “eight ways to get higher education into shape.”
But de Vise’s rationale for the value of this “big idea” is pretty muddled. For instance, he seems to be confusing “core” with “required,” as in this comment: “The core may be making a modest comeback. A growing number of colleges are building required courses and texts into new first-year experience programs, senior “capstone” projects, honors colleges and other school-within-a-school initiatives.”
This is not a “core curriculum” at all – it is required courses within a variety of ever-more diverse tracks for the most part (except possibly for “first-year experience programs”). It also reminds me of the two core curriculum courses I took some 40 years ago (“Western Civilization to 1620”) as part of a collegiate honors program. The course was a whirlwind passage through the core classics – “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Dante” – conducted at a pace that would have put the fastest of package tour bus operators to shame. This is one of the many things that can go wrong with a “core curriculum.”
Ironically, the reasons that de Vise cites for the core curriculum’s near demise in American higher education in the 1960s are also excellent reasons why it should not be revived. For one, the “global knowledge base” is not just “expanding,” it is exploding; in fact, it’s growing so fast that we’re having trouble coming up with new names for the quantities of data being generated. You’ve heard of megabyte, gigabyte, and probably terabyte, but petabyte? Exabyte, zettabyte and yottabyte?
Knowledge is increasing in volume and production rate so fast that mastering “bodies of knowledge” or content has become less important, even pointless. How do we define “core” knowledge when the acceleration of knowledge production affects knowledge itself? Does the size of “core” knowledge grow in proportion? If so, at what point does the core grow to an unmanageable size? If not, what does it mean to have an ever-smaller core of knowledge relative to the total body of knowledge? If knowledge itself is changing more frequently, doesn’t that mean that the core itself needs to change ever-more frequently in response?
The reality is, we’ve always had this problem; it’s just happening more quickly now, as de Vise’s article also illustrates. He refers to “essential knowledge, such as Shakespeare and Milton.” Milton? He notes that different colleges might have different core curricula, for example, Trinity Washington College (“a majority-black women’s college”) might require Toni Morrison or Alice Walker as core reading, although we are assured that they also read Shakespeare there. Well, that sort of blows the notion of “essential knowledge” out of the water, doesn’t it? And if the “changing academic culture” is indeed looking “beyond the teachings of dead white men,” why isn’t Toni Morrison required reading at St. John’s College?
The deeper question concerns defining the core body of knowledge that everyone really needs to master – and who defines it. In his article, de Vise quotes University of Pennsylvania higher education scholar Robert Zemsky, who criticizes the current distribution requirements system as “an educational program with neither design nor purpose.” Which raises the question: Whose design? Whose purpose? This is the other problem with advocating a core curriculum – in too many cases, it seems to be an excuse for imposing authority on students, and often in a regressive way.
What does all this have to do with educational technology? Plenty, as former Penn State University World Campus director Gary Miller noted in a recent listserv discussion:
Even during our lives, the canon – what folks figure to be essential knowledge – has changed dramatically….the key lies not with the “great books” but with the idea of developing in our students the ability to create knowledge, to become good citizens, and to be able to solve problems…[which] takes the active involvement of students through inquiry, collaborative problem solving, and evaluation of the results – things online learning can do at a scale we’ve never had before.
Exactly. More specifically, students need to learn how to process ever-expanding quantities of data and information and turn it into knowledge. What is the core curriculum which will enable students to learn how to do that?
Even so, I am still feeling ambivalent about the value of a core curriculum. Perhaps it has a place if appropriately done? Thoughts on that in the next post…
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