Renewing the Core

How to Enable Skills, Habits and Sensibilities

Two related criticisms have been leveled against the Core: that its guiding principle--the requirement that Core courses "consiously address the approach being used"--is, in the words of a student report, untenable and unworkable; and that Core requirements restrict students' choices in ways that have little intellectual justification. The present guidelines for Core courses were an answer to the question posed by the 1947 Task Force on the Core Curriculum: "What intellectual skills, what distinctive ways of thinking, are identifiable and important?" In the following paragraphs I sketch a different answer to the same question and examine some of its practical implications.

The Working Paper of the Core Review Committee offers the following justification for the guiding principle:

It is in accord with the evolution of scholarship in recent decades. Scholarship has become more specialized; Core courses are more specialized [than the General Education courses of 50 years ago. Although] the specilization of Core course are not, of course, the same,... [specialized research and Core courses] share an assumption that the most effective road to general knowledge may begin with close work on the particular.

How valid is that assumption? Consider the opening sentences of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species--that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting an all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it.


Darwin began as a gentleman naturalist. It was in, and for, the working out of his great idea that he became a specialist in zoology, taxonomy, geology, paleontology, animal breeding, plant breeding, embryology, animal behavior, human behavior, sociology and ecology (a discipline he essentially created). Einstein, too, was guided in his scientific work by a single vision. So was Edward Gibbon, who described the guiding idea of his multivolume historical and literary masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in a single short sentence: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." These examples suggest that someone who sets out to answer a broad question and sticks with it long enough may eventually acquire a good deal of specialized knowledge. On the other hand, scholars who begin by specializing often end by specializing even more narrowly.

Nor is specialization in Core courses a realiably "effective road to general knowledge." I have heard capable students say that some Core courses left them with little more than isolated fragments of specialized knowledge. These courses were presumably intended to teach broader lessons. But someone who lacks an understanding of the appropriate context is unlikely to learn these lessons.

But my main criticism of the Core's guiding principle isn't that it reverses what seems to me the natural order of inquiry (from the general to the special, from broad questions to narrow ones). It is that in invites students to think of academic disciplines as separate cultures, each with its own language, customs and values--cultures whose presuppositions can be legitimately criticized only from within. Thus the principal encourages an attitude that the humanist and educator Jacques Barzun in Science: The Glorious Entertainment calls specialism:

Specialization--attending to one thing at a time, and for as long a time as will insure thoroughness--is obviously desirable and it is not a modern invention. Specialism in something else: it is a piece of etiquette which decrees that no specialist shall bother with the concerns of another, lest he be thought intruding and be shown up as ignorant.... [Specialism reduces] every art and mode of though to a preoccupation with the details of its making.

Excessive emphasis on method in courses intended for non-specialists is also pedagogically unsound. It is true that substance and method are everywhere intertwined. But what attracts and holds a beginner's interest is substance, not method. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin writes in his introduction to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that it "was the first extensive work of English literature (and history) that I read and reread. It occupied much of my thought during my university years as an undergraduate." Einstein recalls how he fell in love with mathematics: As a boy of 12, he came upon a copy of Euclid's Elements in his uncle's library. It was the theorems, not the proofs (which he skipped), that enthralled him.

At a deeper level, method does matter, of course. Scinece, for example, owes its distinctive character not only to the questions it asks but also to the way it answers them. A good scientific story must be logically coherent and empirically testable as well as interesting. Similarly, the stories historians tell aren't just stories. To understand and enjoy them fully one must know more than a little about how they are made. Substance and method are both essential, and Core courses should not ignore method. But substance must come first. If a work of science, history, literature, or art doesn't capture and hold our interest or evoke a strong aesthetic response, as Gibbon did for Boorstin and Euclid for Einstein, why should we care how it was made?

If specialism is the enemy of "direct, unscholarly, unpedantic enjoyment, discussion and criticism" of the arts, humanities, and sciences, as Barzun puts it, what are their friends? I suggest that they are the skills (Barzun would say "powers"), habits and sensibilities that enable enjoyment, discussion and criticism. I suggest that core courses should seek to promote these central enabling skills, habits, and sensibilities; and that they should do so in broadly interesting and important substantive contexts.

How can courses be designed to meet these goals? For the arts, the question is easy to answer, because the curriculum already contains many courses that successfully cultivate sensibitlites to language, color, design and music in the context of outstanding exemplars. I can think of no reason why all such courses, including courses like Music 51 and Music 180, shouldn't qualify for Core credit.

What silks and habits are most basic for informed and critical understanding in the humanities and sciences? In putting together the following list, I have drawn on my experience as a techer and learner. Others will perhaps want to emend it in the light of their own experience.

1. Close reading. the abbility to make out what a text says or what the author intended it to say. It is true that understanding a poem and understanding a mathematical proof call for different reading skills. Yet I believe that the two sets of skills have much in common, and that someone who is proficient in one is well placed to learn the other. In music and the fine arts, the analogous skills are close listening and close seeing.