Listen to the experts on ACTA's Higher Ed Now podcast

Policymakers | General Education

Is The Core Curriculum Really Coming Back?

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  June 1, 2009 by Charlotte Allen

The good news: A survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) announcing that “distribution requirements” in undergraduate education are out and “general education” is back.

Translated, that means—or ought to mean—that colleges are reinstating the idea of a core curriculum of essential courses, conveying essential knowledge, that every well-rounded college graduate ought to have under his or her belt. Core curricula, which typically required undergraduates to enroll in one- or two-year sequences of basic courses in history, literature, science, mathematics, foreign languages, and English composition, fell by the wayside during the 1970s and 1980s, on the theory that the traditional core courses were overly Western-centric (a survey course in Western civilization was usually at their heart), and that what students learned wasn’t so important as the methodology of the various disciplines involved. Why be forced to take a year-long history survey that covered Egyptian pyramids, classical Greece, and the rise of the modern nation-state when you could learn how historians think by choosing any two history courses from a smorgasbord of historical offerings that might include everything from meso-American civilization to women during World War II? Thus began the “cafeteria” approach to undergraduate requirements that has been the prevailing academic model for at least 30 years, in which students must obtain a specified number of credits in, say, the humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences but are free to decide which individual courses in those fields are to their liking (or are easy or meet at convenient times).

The cafeteria model has typically produced college graduates who might be thoroughly informed about the Russian novel or American Sign Language (which counts as fulfilling the language requirement at many universities) but have only a vague idea of who Socrates was. Thus, it seemed a relief to learn that the ACCU now reports, from a survey of chief academic officers at 433 colleges and universities that belong to the association, that only 14 percent of bachelor’s programs currently adhere to the distribution-requirement model The ACCU survey finds that 68 percent of colleges had added “integrative” features that presumably ensure “learning outcomes” as well as checked boxes in distribution areas.

That seems good—but here comes the bad news: the new system, rather than rejecting the worst features of the cafeteria model, actually seems to adopt them, if in a different way that uses the language of general education to describe the same-old same-old of pick-and-choose distribution requirements. First of all, “learning outcomes” doesn’t mean specific knowledge learned: a year’s worth of college-level math or chemistry, for example It means—as the AACU’s own executive survey states—”skills.” To quote the executive summary, “The skills most widely addressed are writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and oral communications skills, and the areas most often incorporated are humanities, sciences, social sciences, global cultures, and mathematics.” In other words, the focus of “general education,” in the supposedly new model is exactly the same as it was under the distribution model: learning how to do something (think critically, communicate orally, reason mathematically, and so forth) rather than acquiring core knowledge.

Furthermore, the main curricular change between the new, improved model and the old course-distribution model is that students now receive their cafeteria offerings not from a large smorgasbord of nearly unlimited course choices but from a reduced array of “interdisciplinary” courses that offer them little or no choice at all. One favorite new general-education device is the “learning community,” in which freshmen and sophomores are randomly assigned to small, thematically designated groups led by a team of instructors. The students are typically required to stick with their learning community for an entire semester and “take” the subjects in which their team-professors happen to be experts, whether the students like it or not. A typical learning-community theme might be “Cool” (my example comes from the curriculum of the now-defunct Antioch College during the fall of 2007), which might combine physics, psychology, and popular literature. No matter that any particular student might prefer to take a basic biology or chemistry sequence in order to prepare for medical school.

As the AACU’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, writes in an AACU press release, “Many colleges are now emphasizing interdisciplinary global studies, learning communities or topically linked courses taken together by a small cohort of students, thematic courses on big questions like sustainability or the global AIDS pandemic, and advanced-level integrative requirements.”

Leaving aside the question of whether a course on “sustainability” amounts to ideological indoctrination rather than substantive learning, it’s hard not to wonder exactly how the kinds of courses Schneider describes amount to reinstatement of a core curriculum. Erin O’Connor, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, notes on her website Critical Mass that what appears to be a content-focused core curriculum implemented in 2000 at the State University of New York’s campuses is “working as a Trojan Horse for retaining the cafeteria-style system by other means.” O’Connor observes that at SUNY’s Fredonia campus students can fulfil an American history requirement by taking such courses as “Holidays and American Culture” and “American Indian Literature” and a Weserm Civ requirement with “Dance History” and “Marxist Thought.” She writes: “One onders whether the cafeteria model of endless, impersonal, ultimately mediocre choice is just being replaced by a ‘coffee shop’ model in which more limited choice does not poruce more focussed study, but instead results in a boutique mentality where specialized material and personal attention become the indices of quality.”

Even more scathing is Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), who describes the ACCU study as a “spin” document based on the glaring methodological flaw of asking college administrators to assess their own institutions rather than collecting and analyzing data independently. The “most damning statistic” in the ACCU report, Neal observes, is that 65 percent of the academic administrators surveyed describe their general education requirements as lacking a coherent sequence of courses—and it is such coherence, signifying agreement on what it is important for all college graduates to learn, that forms the basis of a solid core curriculum. Neal points to a 2004 ACTA study of 50 top-rated U.S. universities (including all the Ivy League plus major state schools) that found that nearly a quarter of them required no core courses whatsoever and that only 2 percent mandated a broad array of core requirements involving at least a year’s study in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy or geology), college-level math (not including “computer literacy), foreign languages, great works-based literature surveys, American history, economics, and writing.

The problem is obviously that even while recognizing that the cafeteria approach to general education can typically result in college graduates who are spottily educated outside their major field, the administrators of most colleges and universities are unable or unwilling to recognize what a well-educated college graduate ought to know. The AACU survey pays lip service to the idea of a core curriculum but its members seem unable to take the next step of actually implementing one.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More