Do We Really Need a Core Curriculum?

John SenerBy 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…

5 Responses

  1. John Sener: “Knowledge is increasing in volume and production rate so fast that mastering ‘bodies of knowledge’ or content has become less important, even pointless. . . . More specifically, students need to learn how to process ever-expanding quantities of data and information and turn it into knowledge.”

    You make a good point here, John. The focus in education has to be on how and not what. With the world’s information increasingly available in open digital forms, the what is just a click or two away for anyone from anywhere at any time.

    As a college student and researcher, I remember plowing through the massive Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature when it was hardcopy only and the primary manual search engine in pre-Web and Google days. In comparison to our electronic search options today, the old method is a nightmare.

    Furthermore, few libraries subscribed to all the major journals and periodicals in every field. Thus, finding a source didn’t always mean finding the article. It was hit or miss, and much depended on the quality of a library’s holdings.

    I spent countless hours in libraries searching for, reading, and making xerox copies of articles. Libraries weren’t open 24-7, and they weren’t always close to where I happened to live.

    But there were no other options.

    Back then, as a teacher, traveling to conferences meant an opportunity to visit bigger and better research libraries, but many were secure and didn’t allow temporary visitors.

    Thus, for me, the internet revolution is an information breakthrough of unimaginable proportions.

    The ability to electronically search articles and entire books in seconds beats hardcopy indexes and “speedreading” by a margin so wide that any comparison is unthinkable.

    As a starving grad student, the coins I put into library copy machines represented a huge chunk of my meager part-time income. Today, I simply copy and paste or download. What can I say.

    You’d think, with this unbelievably easy 24-7 from-anywhere access to information, that we, educators, would have moved on to the more exciting part or research — teaching students how to make the most of the access.

    But we haven’t. We still behave as though information is something to be memorized and regurgitated and that learning is the ability to do this well. This made sense when the only hard drive or online source we had was between our ears.

    But when info is just an electronic click away regardless of where you are in the world, why bother with phone books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, libraries, landlines, books, journals, 3×5 index cards, newspapers, etc. — and why bother trying to memorize the info.

    Now that we’ve opened the door to information, though, we’ve forgotten why we wanted to do so in the first place. We’ve forgotten primarily because teaching for memorization is a lot easier than teaching for application.

    To teach students how to use information, we have to teach them, first, what thinking is; second, how to think; and third, how to communicate their thinking. In all three phases, quality is relative and present in a wide range of degrees.

    The goal is effective thinking, and this is where we come up short. We’ve been so absorbed with the mechanics of getting students to the point where they can begin to sharpen their thinking skills that we don’t know what to do when they’re already poised at the starting line. -Jim S

  2. Thanks for your reply, Jim. “Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature” in print form — wow, that brought back some memories, and you’re right, they weren’t pleasant ones.

    I also agree that the dynamic you’re talking about here is really important. In the past, knowledge was difficult to access, and the mechanics of doing so (e.g., figuring out how to use the Readers’ Guide) were essential skills that required. Now in the age of cyberizing education, knowledge is more accessible, and the mechanics of accessing it are easier — although I believe there’s a lot more work to do on both fronts: we need to make knowledge even more transparent, and make the process of access it even easier so that we focus on developing higher order skills such as “effective thinking.” We need to make it easier to be a scholar so that we can broaden the concept of what it means to be one…

  3. Core is a pointless waist of peoples time and money. Can somebody explain to me why in order to become a vet I have to take two compositions, history and so on that is not related to my major? I need a very logical explanation from A to Z. I need to know when am I going to read to an animal a poetry or to discuss a second amendment before a surgery or after?

  4. […] Do We Really Need a Core Curriculum? […]

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