Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor and a potential Republican presidential prospect, says he wants to mandate a “core curriculum” in public universities as a way to ensure young Floridians are grounded in Western civilization.
To the nation’s higher education leaders, that idea is political kryptonite.
Proponents of the core curriculum say every student should emerge from college with a core of human knowledge: not necessarily Shakespeare and Dante per se, but some sense of civilization’s greatest books and finest ideas.
But college faculties have struggled to decide what a core curriculum should include. Rather than require any specific course, most universities fall back on broad “distribution requirements,” mandating that students take a STEM course here, an arts course there, to explore the academic world beyond their major.
At schools with comparatively lax distribution rules, no one must study any one discipline, let alone take a prescribed course. As a result, students can graduate from Amherst, Brown, Johns Hopkins or UCLA without ever taking a class in science or history or foreign language.
Supporters of core learning say those schools — indeed, most American universities — abdicate their responsibility to make specific choices about what students should learn.
“I think that there are some things that everybody ought to know,” said Roosevelt Montás, senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University. “It’s an idea that academia has largely walked away from, but without, I think, a very good reason.”
From 2008 to 2018, Montás directed the core curriculum at Columbia, founded in 1919, one of a few surviving programs that require all undergraduates to complete a sequence of interdisciplinary courses.
A few other institutions also maintain ancient core curricula, programs formed in the pre-digital age. The University of Chicago requires undergraduates to complete an expansive core curriculum, choosing from a menu of customized courses. St. John’s College, the famed “great books” school, teaches a four-year sequence of foundational texts at campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.
All of those institutions regularly review and revise their core programs to add diversity and depth.
“We’ve added Simone de Beauvoir. We’ve added Baldwin. We’ve added Toni Morrison. These are all lengthy debates,” said Mark Roosevelt, president of St. John’s in Santa Fe. “It’s sort of like amending the U.S. Constitution. It should be hard.”
But to create a new core curriculum from scratch?
“It would be incredibly difficult to craft a core curriculum today, and I don’t know anybody who’s trying to do it,” Roosevelt said.
Generations ago, professors taught from a static list of Western scholars, most of them dead, white and male. Late in the 1800s, the advent of the modern research university inspired a movement away from general education to academic specialization and majors. After 1900, an influx of immigrants sparked a decades-long resurgence of “core” programs that stressed Western intellectual thought.
In the civil rights years, critics assailed core courses for ignoring women, Black Americans and pretty much anything outside the white, European American tradition. Colleges abandoned core curricula en masse.
In the modern era, students typically pass from a high school where most courses are prescribed to a college where they are free to study pretty much what they want.
Leaders of academia argue that their job is to teach students how to think, problem-solve and interact with the world, not to assign a list of essential books.
The great books that long populated core curricula have become so bound up with white, male, Euro-centric culture that the terms “great books” and “core curriculum” themselves are falling from favor.
“I try not to use the words ‘great books,’” said Kyna Hamill, director of the core curriculum at Boston University.
BU’s core is optional, and the readings go well beyond Euro-American culture. Courses include The Way, a survey of Aristotle, Confucius, Laozi, Virgil, and texts from ancient India and Persia. The common theme: “thinking about the best way to live,” Hamill said.
The Columbia scholar Montás, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and Queens, argues against the idea that a “great books” course amounts to an indoctrination in Western values.
“There is nothing wrong, per se, with being a dead, white male,” he said. “That is not a criterion for either inclusion or exclusion. And if we are going to have an education that takes the past seriously, that means that we are going to be studying a group of producers of intellectual content who are not representative of our current intellectual diversity.”
At the University of Chicago, students in one core-curriculum sequence transition from Homer’s Odyssey to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Another group reads The Pillow Book, a work of Japanese antiquity, alongside Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
“There’s a pretty big geographic range,” said Eric Slauter, deputy dean of the university’s humanities division. “There’s a pretty big chronological range.”
Champions of the core curriculum include the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit that advocates for colleges to take a more active role in deciding what courses students take.
The group grades colleges on whether they specifically require students to study science, math, economics, U.S. government or history, foreign language, literature and composition.
The University of Chicago and Columbia both earn Bs. St. John’s gets an A. Amherst, Brown, Harvard, Hopkins and UCLA all receive Fs.
“A core curriculum is the most reasonable safety net that we have to ensure that students get a strong foundational education,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the trustees and alumni group. “There’s something really wonderful, really magical, when faculty ask that question, What is really essential?, and act on it.”
Poliakoff’s group leans conservative, rare in higher education, and was founded in part to balance academic liberalism. The schools awarded As in its grading scale amount to fewer than two dozen in all, include the U.S. Air Force and Military academies, the University of Georgia, a smattering of Christian colleges and the aforementioned St. John’s.
The new push for a core curriculum in Florida is part of a larger campaign by a conservative governor to root out perceived liberal bias in the state’s education systems.
“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition,” DeSantis said during a press conference Tuesday.
Handouts from the governor’s office gave sketchy details, but both The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that DeSantis intends to require courses in Western civilization in Florida’s public universities.
Academic leaders counter that no state government should impose lesson plans on a university.
“I don’t think that the site of curricular decision is the state legislature,” Montás said. “I think the site is the faculty of the school.”
Whatever comes of the Florida governor’s initiative, the core curriculum may be seeing a modest resurgence.
Large-scale, mandatory core programs such as the ones at Columbia and the University of Chicago remain rare. But Montás says he has witnessed a “mini-Renaissance” in recent years around “introducing core texts, foundational texts, into the curriculum. It’s not an explosion of that, but significant, steady growth.”
A nonprofit Association for Core Texts and Courses maintains a list of several dozen colleges with “great books” programs. Most are optional. A few require all students to crack a “core text” at some point in their studies.
Stanford University recently launched a new program in Civic, Liberal and Global Education for all first-year students: a core curriculum in all but name.
In a recent op-ed, headlined “Enough With the Culture Wars,” the program’s director described the effort as nothing short of “an attempt to revive liberal education for the 21st century.”
This article originally appeared in The Hill on February 5, 2023.