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Renewing the Core

How to Enable Skills, Habits and Sensibilities

By David Layzer

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.

2. Recognizing and constructing logical arguments. This skills is central to philosophy, mathematics and natural science, but it is scarcely less important in other academic disciplines. It includes the ability to discern the pre-suppositions of an argument.

3. Gathering, assessing, and using evidence. What counts as evidence relevant to a given thesis or hypothesis? How is it acquired? How does one assess its validity and its implications? Science, history and economics answer these questions in different ways. An educated person should understand the similarities and differences between the three sets of answers.

4. Asking productive questions and making connections. These habits are the keys to active learning. More than anything else, they are what make learning exciting and enjoyable.

A defender of the status quo many say: "Of course we should encourage students to develop these skills and habits. But the Core already does that! For if all kinds of rational inquiry depend on them, then students automatically acquire them by focusing on specific modes of inquiry." This argument is flawed in two ways.

First, an emphasis on modes of inquiry discourages students from questioning the presuppositions that in part distinguish one discipline from another, and from trying to make connections between different disciplines--or even between different approaches within the same discipline. Second, the notion that students automatically acquire core intellectual skills and habits by taking courses that emphasize distinctive modes of inquiry is pedagogically unsound: no one who has paid close attention to the way people acquire skills and habits would agree that this is what actually happens. Learning to decode a poem or a proof, to construct a cogent argument and support it with evidence, and to ask fruitful questions, are not skills that most people just pick up along the way. Each of them is nurtured by particular activities.

Listening to lectures, however inspiring and instructive, is not one of these activities. A well-presented lecture or set of lectures by someone who has thought deeply and in an original way about his or her subject can be invaluable as a guide and stimulus to reading and reflection; it can serve as a model of how an artist, scholar, or scientist approaches his or her work; and it can communicate insights that would otherwise be hard to come by. But the cultivation of basic intellectual skills and habits requires a different setting. In concentrations, this setting has usually been the tutorial. In Core courses outside the arts it could be provided by small writing-intensive discussion sections.

My own experience (in Science A-18ab, Science A-22, Chemistry 8/9, Mathematics 28/29 and Astronomy 120) suggests that such sections are most effective when they: deal rigorously and in depth with individual topics that connect with one another to make a coherent narrative or argument; have reading assignments that are drawn as much as possible from primary sources and that encourage and leave time for choice and exploration of sources; require weekly or semi-weekly essays, or problem sets in the form of coherent essays, on prescribed topics related to the reading assignments; supply prompt and expert feedback on the essays; allow students to revise each essay in the light of discussion leaders' comments and classroom discussions; hold well-organized and skillfully directed semi-weekly discussions.

I claim no originality for this list, rather the reverse: that nearly every experienced teacher who has paid serious and sustained attention to how students acquire core intellectual skills and important substantive insights would come up with a similar list. I propose, then, that every Core course outside the arts offer a section or sections organized along lines similar to those just sketched (or in some other way that could be shown to promote the same ends as effectively).

The most important changes proposed herein would not be in the administrative structure or the Core requirements. They would be in the goals and rationale of the Core. The Core now seeks to acquaint students with the norms and practices of a (somewhat arbitrarily) selected set of academic disciplines. I have argued that Core courses in the arts should seek to develop sensibilities to language, color, design or music in the context of outstanding exemplars; that Core courses outside the arts should seek to cultivate the intellectual skills and habits that underlie all kinds of rational inquiry, in substantive contexts that are either central to a given area of knowledge or at least broadly interesting and important.

David Layzer is the Menzel Professor of Astrophysics. He has taught in the Core program and its predecessor, the General Education program, for more than 25 years.

The Core invites students to think of academic disciplines as separate

Each Core culture is presumed to have its own language, customs and values cultures

The Core cultures presuppose that only criticism from within is legitimate

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