Trustees | Core Curriculum

To improve higher education, schools must return to a strong core curriculum

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  September 27, 2023 by Bradley Jackson

The public is more skeptical of higher education today than ever before. Recent Gallup data show that only a minority of survey respondents (36%) have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Indeed, only 47% of those who graduated from college or university have this level of confidence, down 10 points from only eight years ago. Confidence has fallen among men, women, Republicans, Democrats, and independents; it has fallen among the young and the old, the higher educated and the less. Clearly, something is happening on campus that gives people pause.

There are many issues that need to be addressed, including the cost of education and the rampant controversies related to campus free speech and intellectual diversity. One issue that is not discussed enough, however, is curriculum: What do students learn at college?

We hear more these days about how students are being “prepared for the workforce” or “provided the tools to become successful adults” than we ever do about what they actually learn, and this is because many institutions have replaced strong educational standards with vague ideas about professional culture and teamwork. It has come to seem as though some colleges do not care what their students learn at all, so long as they get practice at taking direction, turning in assignments on time, and working collaboratively.

Surely, these are all important skills, but are they worth the $36,000 average yearly cost of attending college in the United States? Is it any wonder that, according to data from New America, 44% of Generation Z believe , incorrectly, that one can “ensure financial security” with only a high school diploma or equivalent? After all, what does one really learn in college anyway?

It was not always this way. College has always been understood to be a challenge, but the difficulties have not always included crushing debt and uncertain value. Instead, the challenge used to be primarily intellectual. You went to college to learn things that are simply too advanced to teach in high school, too abstract or too concrete, too heady, too mature. Importantly, you learned things that other highly educated people also knew, creating a “high culture” of meaningful, shared ideas to discuss and debate. You read Plato, Milton, or Mill to interrogate the relationship between freedom and obedience. You studied calculus to learn how science understands change and continuity; you studied history to see these things in a different way.

Students still learn things on college campuses, of course, but too often, they are allowed to graduate having learned very little of lasting importance. They have taken a set of classes on specialized topics, but they have no way to connect these ideas together. They take courses that relate to their preexisting interests and identities rather than those designed to broaden their horizons and challenge their preconceptions. Thus, when they leave school, often in tremendous debt, they have aged, but often they have not grown. They have learned how to finish a set of complex tasks, but they have not learned how to think. They have information, but they do not even have a road map to wisdom. Especially in our hyperpolarized era, in which people increasingly see those on the other side of political and cultural issues as enemies, it is vital for colleges to model civil discourse, respectful debate, and positive civic engagement. Colleges around the country are beginning to include these ideas in their freshman orientation sessions, and this is an encouraging development.

Colleges could and should be offering more to their students in terms of education, and they should be expecting more of them, too. Returning to strong core curricula, which give students a strong sense of accomplishment and bring them together around shared ideas and concerns, would be an excellent way for higher education to win back the confidence of the public.

At least then it would be clear why you should attend college: to learn.

This article was originally published by the Washington Examiner on September 27, 2023.


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