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Core Curricula: The 50 Percent Solution

January 22, 2007

Insidehighered’s Scott Jaschik posted a story today titled, “A Curricular Debate: Classic or Retro?” The piece revolves around debates between the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). The former are cast as curricular conservatives and the latter as liberals. I suppose neither side would argue much with their label.

Before continuing I want to note that I’m not a member of either organization.

As I understand the article, the ACTA liberal education folks believe that core curricula are being watered down in terms of content – and perhaps even method, such that the label doesn’t actually reflect the liberal education goals of many core advocates. The AACU folks, who are also advocates for liberal education, argue that most core curricula do well in promoting critical thinking skills and that the specific content used, I believe, is not as important.

It’s a shame that these debates often devolve into finger-pointing. Despite the rancor, unresolved issues remain.

For instance, many schools do now tout core curricula, so it’s fair to ask if they’re all the same. And if not, how do they differ? What Columbia University or St. John’s College calls a core curriculum surely differs from those at other schools. Mr. Jaschik’s article differentiated between ACTA’s ‘traditional core’ (TC) and what I’ll call the AACU’s ‘critical-thinking core’ (CTC). As I noted, the former deals primarily with content, and the latter seemingly with method. Although books of criticism can be content as well, I’m going to assume that method is more important to the CTC crowd. Anyway, due to these mixed topics of conversation, debates between proponents of each always seem to misfire. But a liberal education, both agree, must deal with both questions of content and method.

What’s interesting to me is that it doesn’t seem to be the case that TC folks denigrate critical thinking in general, or even all books critical of the great books of Western civilization. So the question then returns to content: about what are students being taught to think critically?

CTC folks, according to this article, want us to think critically about important late-twentieth century topics such as gender, colonialism, racism, ethnicity, and power. TC folks want us to think critically about Western civilization and its great works (in print and the fine arts it seems, but probably not film).

But CTC folks could argue that they also engage Western civilization by presenting important topics, works, and methods of thinking that are critical of that same entity. TC folks argue, however, that students don’t understand what’s being criticized because they haven’t been exposed to Western civilization’s primary works, the source material. I also think that TC folks see those great works as having an aesthetic beauty that a student can learn to appreciate, as opposed to recent, less artful works of criticism.

But it seems to me that the ‘classic’ versus ‘retro’ characterization is just another logical error: a false dichotomy. Why not meet in the middle? In a core course, in English literature for instance, couldn’t students be exposed to traditional great books that discuss gender, race, and power (such as Shakespeare) in a course’s first half, and then be exposed in the next half to recent works critical of Shakespeare’s presentation of those topics?

What’s wrong with balancing the equation somewhat between the past and the present? Does this violate academic freedom? Perhaps in the setting of a single course and its instructor. But, if balance can’t be accomplished in one course due to the instructor’s strengths, weaknesses, and biases, could it not be done in a two-course sequence: ‘Shakespeare I – His Work’ and ‘Shakespeare II – His Critics’? The first semester of this core would go to the TC crowd, and the next to CTC folks.

Would this ’50 percent solution’ placate both ACTA/TC and AACU/CTC members? Probably not, but at least it presents a possible way out. In my experience, when both parties are unhappy, usually that means a reasonable compromise has been reached. – TL

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