In a recent salvo in what some observers call the “war on the core (curriculum),” Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, points to the disadvantages of the ostensibly rigid and compulsory nature of too many fixed graduation requirements. He alleges that such a dynamic limits opportunities for intellectual exploration and development. Such criticisms might leave readers with the impression that colleges with strong core requirements leave students with little intellectual room to grow.
But naysayers rarely mention this: a thorough seven-subject general education sequence, such as the core curriculum for which the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates in its “What Will They Learn?” report, occupies at most 30 semester hours. It provides an unparalleled, diverse intellectual foundation for further study, while still affording students ample opportunity not only to complete their major but also to devote their attention to the topics that personally excite them.
Every educator will join O’Shea in his appreciation of the way that “serendipity” and discovery compose a major part of the excitement of liberal learning — the “intervention of a gifted professor … taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.” But colleges should not confuse intellectual exploration with the absence of structure and intentional scaffolding of intellectual growth or overlook how profoundly curricular standards help students distinguish between the serious and the trivial.
How does a course on Horror Films and American Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder equate to an American history course designed to cover a comprehensive study of key events in our nation’s past? What about The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga, offered in 2013 at Indiana University, where the most frequent grade was an A-plus? These misplaced priorities are a predictable consequence of privileging curricular “serendipity” over sound curricular structure.
Students enjoy flexibility, agency and choice — but they also need and appreciate direction and structure, rather than being left to pick and choose course sequences with limited intellectual coherence. How will students be ready for serendipity when it comes, if they lack the intellectual foundation required to meaningfully engage in those pursuits? A Lumina Foundation study found that students get “tangled up” when they are left with too many choices, lengthening their time to degree. Faculty members and administrators have an obligation to give students the framework they need to grow intellectually and graduate.
Attributing boredom and tedium to required courses, and excitement and joy to curricular choice, simply does not stand up to a logical examination of the facts. A required course can be taught well or taught badly, and the same is true of the most culturally relevant elective. Try telling graduates of core curricula at programs as varied as those at Columbia University, Hampden-Sydney College, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas and the University of Georgia that their experience was stale and intellectually limited.
The decimation of clear requirements and frameworks is likely a major contributor to a growing sense of drift and disappointment among college graduates — and their employers. Survey data show that while nearly all provosts believe their institution is doing an excellent job of preparing students for careers, employers sharply disagree — particularly when it comes to writing and critical thinking. A survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 26 percent deemed the critical thinking skills of their recently hired college graduates excellent. Just 23 percent thought that recent graduates were well prepared at “applying knowledge/skills to the real world.”
“Serendipity” is ultimately a poor substitute for academic leadership, for a board, administration and expert faculty coming together, determining the priority skills and knowledge that equip graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship, and then having the determination to reify those priorities in requirements — not aspirations. Privileging faculty excitement over the needs of students — about to face a ferocious, globalized job market — is academic malpractice.
The survival of the liberal arts tradition demands that colleges act with urgency to clarify their requirements and expectations of students. Costs and sagging class enrollments are threatening entire majors and departments in essential subjects such as physics, philosophy and foreign language on many college campuses. Students at some liberal arts colleges are opting into vocational courses such as accounting and computer science.
Without rigor and cohesive requirements, the liberal arts will eventually confront a future of irrelevance. What’s called for here is a rigorous liberal arts education and facing up to our responsibility as standard-bearers in that process. Employers, taxpayers, parents and students are quite reasonably demanding more from higher education. Are we listening?