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The Core: Fashionable Trendsetter In Liberal Arts Curriculum Reform

By Amy B. Mcintosh

Like fashion, education is subject to frequent trendy shifts in style. Hemlines go up and environmental studies comes in. Spiked heels disappear, and so do foreign language requirements. And like any other fashion-conscious group, educational institutions imitate each other for fear of seeming behind the times. Of course, each institution is careful to retain enough individuality to keep from sinking into a sea of polyester clones. To find out what is currently chic, the fashionable keep their eyes on the trendsetters; in this way, Halston and Harvard have a common function.

Periodically fashion and education grow nostalgic, and try to return to the way things were in the good old days. Harvard's new Core Curriculum, for example, harkens back to the narrower educational requirements of the early 1900s. The Core is part of a current national trend toward revising general education curricula, usually by tightening requirements and clarifying academic goals. But despite the impression fostered by the national media, Harvard's own administrators point out that the Core is neither the first nor the most radical educational reform of its kind. Many other institutions have almost simultaneously opted for programs like the Core in letter or in spirit.

Most experts agree that the current national flurry of general education reforms marks a swing of the pendulum back to the way curricula were before '60's campus activists forced many university administrations to abolish or loosen course requirements. Now that campuses are quiet again, faculties are starting to regret their loss of control over students' educations. Many of the reasons cited for curricular reforms sound like the same ones the fathers of general education offered in the early 1900s at places like Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Harvard. The speeches are so much alike they prompted critic Alston Chase to write in September's Atlantic Monthly that with the Core, Harvard is only "reinventing the wheel." Chase warns that the rest of the educational world may blindly follow suit without trying anything more innovative.

Modern general education saw its real start in 1919 when the Columbia College faculty instituted a required course in Contemporary Civilization, sometimes referred to by current students as "philosopher of the week." Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 into the '50s, started a more ambitious program, a four-year, totally prescribed, liberal arts curriculum to fight what he once called "the peculiar brutality and aggressive stupidity with which a man comports himself when he knows a great deal about one thing and is totally ignorant of the rest." Like Columbia, Chicago wanted its students to share a common intellectual experience and hoped to insure a familiarity with basic literary and historical accomplishment.

Although Harvard's General Education in a Free Society recommended in 1945 that Harvard prescribe specific courses in western thought, literature and science for all students, the Faculty opted instead for a selection of courses in Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and the Humanities. Many other institutions imitated this system, although few devised specific general education courses, preferring instead to let students fulfill the distribution requirement with departmental offerings.

Educators at U.S. institutions that have just changed or are now changing their general education programs, say that over the years the purpose of general education requirements has been lost through options and exemptions for students and lack of guidelines about liberal education for faculties. Rudolph Weingartner, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, says Northwestern's old four-area distribution requirement assured only that students would take whatever courses in the various departments fit their schedules, without any concern for fashioning a coherent education.

Columbia's old argument for a common base of knowledge also comes up in current discussions of general education. John Perry, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Stanford University and head of a committee instituting a new program there, says, "Since the end of the war, Stanford professors have had to water down their advanced courses to explain material they used to be able to assume students understood." David Riesman, Ford Professor of Social Sciences, adds that a common intellectual experience enables students to learn more from each other. Under Gen Ed, he says, "the chance is minimal that you will be taking a course that one of your roommates is taking so you can talk about it together."

Often a university will use curricular reforms to bolster a program facing destruction. In the early 1900's Columbia and Chicago were threatened with the possible dissolution of their undergraduate programs under pressure from educators who felt college-aged students should be learning specialties and hurrying out into the world to apply them, instead of dabbling in liberal arts with little practical use.

By coming up with solid and coherent general education programs, the two schools reasserted the importance of undergraduate liberal arts.

Similar pressures today generally take a financial form as colleges fold at an alarming rate. Riesman says financially weak schools often feel the need to differentiate themselves, if only slightly, from other schools in order to attract students. But change is risky because a school making the wrong choice may lose students and have to close. "If you get empty buildings, you wind up as a Holiday Inn," says Howard Solomon, dean of undergraduate studies and academic affairs at Tufts.

Restating educational goals also helps faculty morale by reuniting professors in a common purpose and encouraging development of new courses to meet the new standards.

Although the forces behind curricular reform are fairly universal, the specific solutions offered differ greatly. Most schools undergoing curricular change agree that requirements should be more demanding and the faculties should have more control over a student plan of study. But faculties differ over how many and which areas of study are important and in whether or not to require all students to take specific courses or to let them choose from a selection. Universities also sometimes lack people qualified to teach the courses they want to offer.

Outside help is available, however. Northwestern, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins have all recently won large grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to hire faculty and develop programs for their general education experiments. A Mellon spokesman says the foundation has no set policy of helping curriculum experiments, but considers aiding institutions that present strong educational plans.

Some schools are merely tightening their general education requirements without substantially altering their form. Berkeley's Letters and Sciences program will require the Class of '83 to fulfill a math requirement stressing logic and quantitative reasoning as well as a foreign language requirement. The school, which already requires American history and American institutions courses, is also modifying its Nat Sci, Soc Sci, Hum distribution requirement to make students take courses in both areas outside of their major.

The widespread return of basic skills requirements like math, languages and writing, prompts some observers to say colleges are moving "back to basics." Roderic B. Park '53, dean and provost of the College of Letters and Sciences at Berkeley, says educators dislike the term "back to basics" because "it implies that you have joined a movement of dinosaurs who don't have modern liberal education in mind. It's a movement that extends from good intentions to some very conservative ideas." Nevertheless, with high schools providing increasingly uneven preparation, college faculties are realizing they must teach students "with the short attention span of television instead of the long attention span of Tolstoy," says Riesman.

Many school are trading in their old three-area systems for more finely-tuned divisions. Harper College, the liberal arts school of the State University of New York at Binghamton, has not yet decided what will replace its old Nat Sci, Soc Sci, Hum program, but H. Daniel Cohen, acting dean of the college, says the faculty is considering three options. One is an eight-course core curriculum for all students; another would let students choose among five or six sets of eight-course curricula; the third option (which Harper calls the Harvard Plan) would be a three-area distribution requirement with a limited choice of courses.

Many observers are reserving judgement on the Core until Harvard develops specific courses because they realize the strength or weakness of a liberal arts curriculum lies in the individual courses and not in broad guidelines. Choosing to reform courses and not guidelines, a Johns Hopkins Physics professor, Gordon Feldman, is leading an experiment to develop four interdisciplinary courses that students can use in the next two years to fulfill general education requirements.

Although Feldman insists the program is entirely experimental and not designed to lead to a required core, he says an interdisciplinary approach would provide students with better exposure to subjects outside their major.

More than that of any other school, Northwestern's new curriculum resembles the Core. Last spring, just days before Harvard voted in the Core, Northwestern substituted a six-area distribution requirement for a four-area one. The new program adds the study of values to the traditional Soc Sci, Nat Sci, Hum triad, and sets up historical studies and formal studies (math and quantitative reasoning) as independent course areas. The study of values and history mirrors features in Harvard's Core that the Faculty proudly points to as special innovations. Formal studies is Dean Weingartner's pet project because he thinks lumping math in with science allows students to avoid taking one or the other. Harvard's Core task force, chaired by James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government, originally called for a separate math requirement, but the suggestion was defeated in the final version, much to the chagrin of science professors.

Unlike most schools, Harvard has long kept its general education courses separate from its interdepartmental offerings, thereby avoiding many interdepartmental squabbles. Others do not have the resources to develop a completely separate set of courses for gen ed. But even Harvard has not completely escaped the problem of academic politics, which complicates general education reform. Atlantic Monthly says departmental power struggles and the ensuing need for compromises between competing interests ensures that no single, clear vision of educational priorities guides faculties. "Somewhere in the profusion of competing interests, the goal of the pursuit of knowledge was submerged," says Alston Chase. "At best it surfaced as one of the values being touted."

Such give and take may be a necessary evil. An unwillingness to compromise recently helped defeat proposed curricular reforms at Yale and Princeton. Many educators find no contradiction between the ideal of a single core of knowledge necessary for an educated person, and the fact that virtually every group of educators comes up with different specifications for that Core. Northwestern's Weingartner says, "there are many good ideas floating about. We don't have a tradition in which being educated is definable."

Students play roles of varying importance in educational change. Most schools allow students to serve on committees forming the curricular proposals, but rarely do students initiate any changes. Student reaction to new requirements ranges from annoyance to disinterest to quiet praise. One student at Harper says sarcastically of the proposed requirements there, "Some people are under the impression that this is going to be an Ivy League college someday." A student at Syracuse said his college's plan would lead to a "ridiculous, arbitrary core." But student newspapers at Stanford and Northwestern lauded proposals there.

Riesman says students play a greater role than they realize in determining the fate of their curriculums. "Students vote with their feet and with their attention," he explains. Because professors dislike teaching semi-captive audiences trying merely to fulfill requirements, they try to design courses that attract eager and interested students.

Since the Core was passed only last year, the extent of influence it will have on other schools is not yet clear. If officials at other institutions revising their curricula are familiar with any other general education program, it is usually Harvard's. But sometimes they tend to feel bitter about what they see as Harvard's undeserved limelight. Nevertheless, phone calls continue to pour into University Hall requesting information on the Core. Schools as unlike Harvard as the University of Tampa and the University of Puget Sound are considering core curriculums. As Riesman notes, "The affluent started out wearing blue jeans, and now it has caught up with the blue collar." Ah, the vicissitudes of fashion.

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