Trustees | General Education

Core subjects must be required

VIRGINIA GAZETTE   |  January 22, 2013 by Greg Lewin

A vast gulf separates the ages of 18 and 22. According to law, when we turn 18 a switch is flipped and we become adults. Suddenly we can vote, we can choose where we live, we can decide what classes we take in college.

Choosing college course work well is both difficult and high-stakes. In essence, you are asking yourself, “What knowledge will equip me with the wisdom required to make life’s big decisions?”

At least, that’s what you should be asking yourself. That particular question was never posed by Freshman Greg. Instead, Freshman Greg set to tackling such imponderables as, “Will this class fit in my schedule?” “Will this professor be fun?” and “Does putting hot dogs in my oatmeal count as breakfast or dinner?”

I attended George Washington University, a school that, like the College of William & Mary, is a prestigious institution of higher learning. And overall, I think that I got a pretty good education.

But it could have been better. I did not identify the gaps in my fundamental knowledge. I did not choose classes that would help fill these gaps and prepare me for the real world. Why? Because though legally I was an adult, truthfully I was a college kid who didn’t know any better. And no one told me otherwise.

The same excuse cannot be proffered by the adult members of the William & Mary Curricular Review Steering Committee. On Feb. 5, the committee’s proposal for a new core curriculum will be put to a faculty vote.

Sadly, the proposed new curriculum is a step that takes W&M even further backward. It erodes what is now intact and further dilutes what were already overly broad requirements in the humanities and social sciences. And it’s important to remember that, if it passes, the education of W&M students for years to come is on the line.

currently every student must take one course in mathematics and one course each in biological and physical science. The new proposal collapses these three strong, discrete requirements. As the nation calls for more graduates in math and science, such a move would be tragic. One might think that the proposed curriculum would seek to address the weakness of William and Mary’s current “Freshman Writing” requirement.

But rather than taking the opportunity to provide focused and structured training in expository writing–a skill that employers demand–the new curriculum will continue to accept such courses as “Bodybuilding & Culture,” “History of Coffee & Coffeehouses,” “Sound Design & Science Fiction,” and “Spy Tales.”

The dedicated writing courses that students so desperately need should not need to compete with boutique “fun” courses. That’s what electives are for.

Nor will the proposed revisions address the absence of literature or economics requirements.

The new curriculum would also reduce the study of history of any kind to an option within a bloated menu of courses. There will be no American history requirement. And this is a stunning omission, in light of a recent GfK Roper survey on historical literacy conducted for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which showed that fewer than half of the college graduates surveyed knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II, and only 20% correctly identified James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” Worse yet, only 38% knew the lengths of congressional terms of office.

Americans govern themselves, but we cannot do so without understanding where we came from as a people and how economic forces affect our lives. Regrettably, the proposed core revisions provide no remedy.

John Engler, former governor of Michigan and president of the Business Roundtable, has noted with alarm the shortcomings in college curricula: “Too few schools require their students to develop a firm grounding in core subject areas, the foundation upon which later expertise can be built. This does a disservice not only to the students but also to employers seeking the capable, well-rounded employees they need to compete in the global economy.”

The fact is, even if some students are well prepared, many will not have extensively studied literature, science, math, economics, and the other fields of knowledge essential for success.

Knowing what I now know, I urgently ask why the adults would “dumb down” existing requirements and ignore current gaps that allow William and Mary students to graduate without the skills and knowledge that will help them succeed after graduation.

On behalf of college students–the demographic to which I still feel I belong–I implore the faculty not to endorse the proposed curriculum in February, and instead to demand high standards and strengthening of the core.

Greg Lewin, a recent college graduate, is a program officer, Curricular Reform, at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C.


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