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The Case for a Core Curriculum

Having students take a few of the same classes teaches them about much more than the subject matter.
June 12, 2017
9 mins read

Once upon a time, almost every college in America had a core curriculum—a set of classes that every student, regardless of major, was required to take.

Now, however, most four-year colleges require broad topics instead of specific classes, if they have any general-education requirements at all. This means that, while all students must study a given subject, they don’t have to take a given class. Some people argue that this frees up students to take the classes most relevant to them and their career goals, while others say it runs the risk of depriving them of essential knowledge.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization that conducts educational research and promotes academic excellence, found that the courses offered to fulfill a general requirement are often so narrow in scope, that students can’t get an adequate grasp of the whole subject. For example, one of ACTA’s studies discovered that some undergraduates got credit for studying U.S. history when, in fact, their class had only covered “Environmental History of California.”

This might not seem like a big deal, since high school is supposed to be the place where students get general knowledge before they move on to specialized subjects in college. Sadly, though, a high school diploma is no guarantee that its holders are well educated. A few years ago, the “New York Times” published an article announcing that only 12 percent of high school seniors could demonstrate “proficiency” on a nationwide history evaluation. A month earlier, the Christian Science Monitor had reported that, among high school seniors, 76 percent could not achieve a “proficient level or above” on a similar test about civics.

Statistics like that are what send some educational think tanks scrambling to revive the core curriculum. Their arguments for core curricula usually focus on how cores help students intellectually, but they rarely talk about the personal benefits, which I find more compelling. In a nutshell, core curricula help strengthen students in areas where they’re weak and encourage camaraderie across a college community.

Because core curricula give students basic knowledge in many areas, graduates have more tools to understand the complicated world around them. It’s unreasonable to assume that studies in any one discipline can give you a complete picture of the world. Also, as any English professor will tell you, everyone needs to be able to write and speak clearly. Making science majors take a humanities class is one way to strengthen their communications skills. The point cuts both ways; humanities majors need an understanding of basic scientific principles, or they’ll have a difficult time understanding the ways science affects everyday life.

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Everyone has subjects that they enjoy and subjects that they try to avoid. But core curricula force students to try different areas of study even if they’ve already picked a major. The core curriculum at my college, which is bigger than most cores but serves as a good example, prescribes three classes in science, two classes in both history and English and one class apiece in philosophy, sports studies, politics, religion, logic and mathematics. This system does occasionally cause resentment, but plenty of people take a core class grudgingly, only to realize that they have an interest or talent they never recognized before, as this article relates.

It’s not just the people who change their minds about a subject that benefits them, though. If your mind has never been made up concerning a major, a core curriculum is a great blessing. At a minimum, working through the core requirements buys you time before you have to declare a major. The process of trying out classes in several departments helps you figure out what you enjoy and don’t enjoy, what you’re good at and what you’re not, and thus, helps you find the right major.

The greatest benefit of cores, though, is their impact on a college community. Having classes that everyone must take gives the students something in common and fosters a sense of unity across all majors, which can be difficult to produce otherwise. College students usually come from all over America, sometimes from all over the world, and have varied economic, cultural, educational and religious backgrounds. But with a core, all the freshmen are discussing “Hamlet” or struggling to understand that obscure medieval philosopher at roughly the same time.

The shared experience makes it easier to get to know people outside your major. If there’s something you’re struggling to understand, a fellow student in another section might be able to provide a different perspective that makes more sense. Cores also help bridge the gap between upperclassmen and underclassmen, because everyone has at least a nodding acquaintance with the material covered in the core.

Having to study subjects outside their normal interests also fosters communication between students in different disciplines. Taking a Chemistry 101 course makes it easier for you to understand what Chemistry majors care about, even if you struggle with science. That little bit of first-hand experience goes a long way toward building community, and being able to find common ground with people whose interests are different from your own is a necessary life skill. Getting math students and art students to experience each other’s fields may seem like a trivial way to encourage engagement of different viewpoints, but any practice can help.

The benefits of core curricula do not necessarily mean American colleges should have a nationwide core curriculum, such as the one the Common Core program is supposed to provide for secondary schools. Core curricula work best on a school-by-school, self-written basis because of the dissimilarities between schools. Four-year colleges come in a wide variety of sizes, educational emphases and philosophies, and there are significant differences between them and other post-secondary options, like community colleges or trade schools. It is hard to imagine one single curriculum that would please every college in America and match their individual capacities and needs.

Regardless, core curricula deserve reconsideration. Some colleges already use them, and they tend to champion their systems wholeheartedly. For example, St. John’s College, a liberal arts college based in Maryland and New Mexico, uses a core curriculum that takes up nearly all of a student’s four years and covers a formidable set of primary sources, from Aristotle to Einstein. St. John’s believes that its core gives students, “the opportunity to discuss and debate important ideas outside of class and across both campuses. This social environment provides a broader and more useful learning experience than any traditional course of college study.”

Anne Buzzell, Hillsdale College

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Anne Buzzell

Hillsdale College

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