Why College Cores?

College faculties taught from the same, fairly static list of Western scholars until the late 1800s, when the American research university took shape and students began to choose their own majors. A wave of immigrants in the early 1900s prompted a return to “core” academic programs that surveyed the Western intellectual tradition for students who hadn’t learned it in high school. The academic freedom movement of the 1960s set off another pendulum swing. …

Today, only a handful of national universities require students to survey the span of human knowledge. … Extreme is the “great books” approach of St. John’s College in Annapolis. … “They are perfectly capable of coming up to someone at a cocktail party and talking about their soul.” … But the great books model is at odds with the structures of research universities, whose faculties succeed by cultivating academic specialties. …

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni … handed out F grades in August to Hopkins and many of its peers. … [They] faulted the schools, including Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst and the University of California at Berkeley, for failing to require students to take courses in more than one of seven core academic subjects: math, science, history, economics, foreign language, literature and composition. … “Those schools don’t do a good job at providing their students with a coherent core.” …

The schools awarded “A” grades by the raters are an unusual bunch: highly structured military academies, a few public universities …, tradition-minded Christian institutions (Baylor University) and the “great books” schools. … Harvard, meanwhile, got a D. Only a few of the nation’s top national universities and liberal arts schools fared better. (more)

Whence this urge to make college students all take the same “core” classes? It might be paternalism re the intellectual health of the students. But if so, why only require this core of college students; why not make everyone take it? Why expect students to underestimate the benefit of core classes, even after they’ve heard your arguments for such classes? And why do advocates seem much less interested in which classes are in the core than that there be a common core?

Another theory is that students neglect being innovative because they don’t get all of its benefits, and people innovate more when they learn more than just one narrow field. But the usual breadth requirements seem sufficient for that purpose – people taking a variety of different breadth classes betters encourages finding unusual connections between fields. And we see little interest in encouraging people to know two fields in depth, which would seem to help cross-field connections the most.

A related theory is that a common core enables better communication between specialists in different areas. But again, this seems better encouraged by lots of diverse overlaps, and especially by people who know two fields in depth, than by everyone taking the same common core, Also, why not make non-college folks do this, and why don’t those who talk internalize gains from better communication?

An important clue here is that a burst of immigration coincided with an increased perceived need for a common core. So perhaps insiders wanted the core to create a stronger clearer contrast between “us” and “them.” One possibility is that people really wanted to push a certain package of “our” course content, in order to change immigrants from “them” into “us.” Under this theory, apparent advocate disinterest in core content is deceptive; they were confident that if we picked a standard core it would have the content they wanted.

Another possibility is that the common core was to affirm the high status of a kind of sophistication that immigrants and other outsiders lacked, and the low status of those who lacked it. Imagine that by luck or perseverance a person of “low” origins achieved great things in some narrow area, such as physics or computers. Imagine further that this person also read widely and learned about many different fields. With a standard common core one could still label this person as insufficiently intellectual, and below the status of a college graduate, if they had not learned the specific “diverse” things in the common core.

Any other theories?

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  • In my view, the hardest part of an outsider being accepted by high society has more to do with core beliefs (tolerance, religious mildness or agnosticism, praise of mostly non-Western cultures) and superficial understanding of pop culture (sports, highbrow movies and TV, fashionable books). Outside a small academic cluster, there doesn’t seem to be that much signaling value in discussing material that might be learned in a “core curriculum”; bringing up Proust usually signals pretension rather than sophistication.

    Of course the self-same academics are the ones who fashion core curricula, so you might argue that the only force behind the core curriculum idea is to shape their social circle to their narrow benefit. But that’s a very small group of people and it seems unlikely that they alone would create something so universal.

    • Yes since few take a core now, its signaling value has been eroded. Maybe those who want a revived core want to revive that signal.

  • It’s not clear what “core” means in this context. If the point is to get students to know a little bit from each of fixed list of core subjects, I’m on board with that. Some ideas are simply more important than others. In college, I took a class on “Vampires in Literature and Film,” and while it was a lot of fun, what I learned in that class obviously isn’t as valuable as what I learned in many of my other classes.

    If I were running a college, here would be my list of things every student would have to study at least a little bit:

    Math (both calculus and stats)
    Physics (classical, quantum, relativity)
    Chemistry (including quantum chemistry)
    Biology (molecular, evolutionary, neuro)
    Psychology (experimental, evolutionary)
    Composition (non-fiction)
    Critical Thinking

    I emphasize that I don’t think more than a little bit of any of these is necessary. Many of these subjects are hard if you want to specialize in them, but the basic concepts are not so hard. You can know what derivatives and integrals are, for example, without being able to prove any difficult theorems in calculus.

    The “Great Books” approach is more plausibly understood as a status thing, especially when applied to undergraduates.

    In some subjects, though, (philosophy and history of science come to mind) it makes sense to require graduate students to have a broad knowledge of the relevant history.

  • Whence this urge to make college students all take the same “core” classes?

    Louis Menand talks about this in Chapter 1 of his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in American Universities. The question is basically about, as he says “there are certain things that [students] need to know” (29), as in a Core model, or whether a distribution system, which argues that students will get “breadth and depth” (26).

    This comes from the general education model — the idea that students need some “basic” skills. But what does “basic” mean? The answer is one that, according to Menand, basically comes from the 20th Century: before the 20th Century, as the Washington Post article observes, it was much easier to say, “There is a single body of knowledge that people need to know.” But as research universities got started, knowledge fragment, people specialized, and faculties started to ask what students need to know (30). This idea is basically what your penultimate paragraph is getting at. The Core system is is supposed to make students worldly; the distribution system is supposed to let them follow their interests while still making sure they get what they nominally need, according to the faculty. Over time, the latter system gets gamed. But the Core system gets criticized for being out-of-touch or as a signaling function.

    Taking this, here’s my view: relatively few academics want to say, “take whatever you want” or “you can only take classes in your major.” So we get the kind of hodgepodge and inconsistency that currently characterize education. I suspect that, by now, people look at systems that exist and mostly try to rationalize them ex post facto, rather than asking themselves, “What would an ideal system look like?”

  • I second Chris’s list. I like the idea of a core education, or formative knowledge, as the great anarchist philosopher Albert J. Nock called it. He criticizes what became of education in A Theory of Education in the United States and in Memoirs of a Superfluous man.

    Central to his support for a formative education is his belief that most of the population is hopelessly ineducable and shouldn’t receive traditional schooling at all.

  • I’m in favor of a core that one can test out of.
    -English Grammar and Composition
    -Mathematics through Calculus 1, Statistics, Intro to computers (Common user interfaces, spreadsheets, word processing, media publishing, internet, automation/programming)
    -Cultural Literacy (approximated by the book Dictionary of Cultural Literacy)
    -Small Teams participation and management (how to lead and participate in work teams of 10 or less people).

    I think this is about the core of knowledge one should expect from all college graduates.

    I think almost all graduate and post-baccalaureate degrees should prerequire the mathematical ability equivalent to a quantitative masters and training in leading and studying groups of 100-1000 people.

    I’m also a fan of dual literacies (of the two graduate degrees in two different fields variety) for a gifted fraction of the population.

  • I thought they wanted less of a contrast between immigrants and natives and thought that making all students take the “core” courses was more likely to achieve that.

  • jsalvatier

    I don’t know about the other topics, but I do think most majors should require a little bit of composition since writing is an important skill in most fields and practice does help. I am not an english major.

  • Psychohistorian

    This is very intersting, but I think you got one bit backwards: “With a standard common core one could still label this person as insufficiently intellectual…”

    The goal is to create a shared culture of the elite, not to provide some means of despising intellectuals outside the elite. There are many benefits to having an elite with central elements of their culture shared, especially if you are a member who gets to decide what those are. But the social cohesion is probably helpful for society generally, and also allows for efficient signalling and counter-signalling.

    This is strongly supported by the schools rankings. If you’re Harvard, almost all of your students are already culturally assimilated into the elite, and can’t really help but be so after four years there. For many state schools, this is clearly not the case.

  • We do need a core, but it needs to start in middle school. People don’t know enough about biology to make informed health decisions, economics to make informed life decisions, psychology and logic to make informed decisions. Hallquist’s list is good as far as it goes, but it leaves out logic, grammar, and literature. One needs literature to learn how to think in far more complex ways than any other field teaches you to think. Logic teaches you how to think. And grammar teaches you now to think clearly in language. Philosophy, properly done, shows us how it all fits together. And we do need to know how it all fits together. Perhaps a required course should be one that explicitly shows us how it all fits together and explains why we need to know something about everything, even as we learn a lot about one thing in particular.

    An economist who doesn’t know psychology, decision theory, complex systems theory, network theory, sociology, ethology, ethics, cultural studies, and anthropology isn’t much of an economist. (S)he doesn’t know enough to say anything intelligent about economics as far as I’m concerned. You might as well be a neuropsychologist who knows nothing about cell biology, chemistry, or ethology.

    • Troy Camplin, most people going to college aren’t going to become economists or the equivalent in other fields. They’re going to work on small teams on the scale of 10 people, making small contributions to larger enterprises. I think it’s wasteful trying to impart deep decisionmaking tools to folks when we’d probably be better off optimizing paternalistic frameworks for them and giving them strong team performance tools. Everything I just wrote of course is subordinate to the best empirics on this topic.

      • If people put together interdsiciplinary teams, you might be right. They don’t.

        Of course, I also think that most of the people who go to college have no business going to college, and should attend trade schools of various sorts. I think the world would be a better place if one could not even major in Business and if business schools were abolished. I would also say the same of Education as a major. Almost everything one learns in an Education major is a colossal waste of time (the Education major is an outcome of teachers’ unions’ attempts to create barriers to entry). But this is venturing a bit far afield (and besides, I wouldn’t “ban” anything — I use such strong language to argue that it would be more sensible if colleges didn’t offer such things in the first place).

      • Jess Riedel

        I think you dramatically overestimate the degree to which academic elites influence paternalistic policy. Most paternalism is the product of non-expert politicians pandering to under-educated voters, with only marginal input from (biased) academics.

        Also, I find it very surprising that you (someone who I understand to be concerned with existential risk) think resources are being wasted on improving the general population’s decision-making abilities. Or do you really think that (good?) elite decision making is the result of innate abilities rather than good upbringing?

      • “Or do you really think that (good?) elite decision making is the result of innate abilities rather than good upbringing?”

        That’s a bit overreductionist, but it looks to me like there’s a large spread in the innate ability to learn to make good decisions. I think organizations often do better for their constituents with a mixed strategy of bounded agent autonomy and technocratic paternalism. It seems to me we have very little to gain by teaching most people even AP statistics, let alone more esoteric decision science.

        We have to start with an honest assessment about how dumb, including innately dumb, most people are. And then optimize our institutional designs accordingly.

      • Jess Riedel

        At this point we’re discussing an empirical question (how innately bad are people at making decisions), so we won’t make much progress without looking at the literature. But, in general, what makes you think the situation is so hopeless? Sure, there’s almost certainly an innate (genetic) component to reasoning ability. But all sources I have heard say that the variance in intelligence (which, of course, is not exactly the same thing) is a lot larger than genetic components, suggesting that there’s a lot of room for upbringing to improve.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    I think some of the darker motives mentioned above might be correct, but let me defend the idea of common core education anyway.

    One reliable bias of students is that they think the subject matter they learn at Uni will be what they actually use in their careers – even though everyone tells them otherwise. This is why (say) Engineering students might not want to do a course on writing, even if they are told that they are going to spend their whole professional careers writing reports. Moreover, if someone came up with a “writing for Engineers” course then it would probably be some dire mickey mouse thing that probably really is a waste of time.

    Better for them to study English lit, or History, or any goddamn thing where they had to write clearly about some topic and are marked more on their communication of ideas than on the correctness of the ideas themselves.

  • Because the law of diminishing returns applies, potentially, a core program teaches students more than a program where the students follow their interests: you learn progressively less per time unit as you take increasingly advanced courses in a few subjects, all else equal. You can really learn an awful lot in a good introductory course, so someone taking many such courses may emerge “better educated,” in the sense of displaying sheer erudition.

    So, one purpose of core curricula is to impart a lot of knowledge, without regard for its usefulness. This suggests that the “conspicuous leisure” form of signaling is part of what accounts for core requirements. But core curricula have another root in the tendency to ignore, as a factor determining amount learned, students’ differing degrees of interest in specific subjects.

    As to what that tendency derives from, I’d suggest the “fundamental attribution error.” Observers view a student’s academic interest as a person trait, not a variable determined by the situations of differing subject matter.

  • Diamond is correct. When I was working on my Master’s in molecular biology, I became bored out of my mind in my classes because I’d already learned everything in the Enzymology class in the molecular biology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, etc. classes I had as an undergrad. The same was true of my nucleic acids class, etc. For me, the diminsihing returns were such that I dropped out and got graduate degrees in completely different subjects: English (M.A.) and Humanities (Ph.D.). It turned out that my undergrad Intro. to Philosophy class and Intro. to Economics classes were the most important ones (since the first laid the groundwork of interest for my Ph.D., and my latest publications and soon-to-be published papers have been on economics).

  • cournot

    Robin neglects the biggest reason the Core tends to be abandoned: permitting more grade inflation. The more latitude students have in taking courses, the easier it is for weak students to tailor their choices to get good grades. Thus individual abandonment of the Core is individually rational but inefficient. It’s adverse selection.

    It’s already been documented in econ articles that grade inflation in humanities devalues engineering and science at the margin. All else equal it’s better to be an A student in a fluff subject than a C student in engineering. This in turn puts pressure on all subjects and devalues all degrees. So a Core is a (mild) form of quality control.

    Even when tough schools like MIT devalue their required courses it’s by giving more options (like having 3 versions of calc so architects and linguists can make it through the first year alive).

    • I believe grade inflation actually followed abandonment of the core.

      A well-done humanities program is harder than any other subject, because it’s the most complex. I abandoned molecular biology because I got bored with it; I went with the humanities because it is increasingly complex.

  • Buck Farmer

    As I see it, by the end of college every student should be able to answer, elaborate on, and defend two major questions:

    1. What criteria for positive truth are used (in a variety of fields, cultures, situations) and which should be used (when, where, why, how, by whom, etc.)?

    2. What criteria for normative truth are used (in a variety of fields, cultures, situations) and which should be used (when, where, why, how, by whom, etc.)?

    They should be able to defend these choices in writing, verbally, and practically (i.e. by demonstration or performance).

    If you can do these two things by the end of college and also satisfy your major, then I think you’ve done enough. Basically, I agree with a core curriculum, but think it should produce able to answer these two questions in a wide variety of situations.

  • DW

    1. Indoctrinating ancestor worship

    2. Feeling of satisfaction that ancient “geniuses'” ideas can be assimilated by anyone today.

    And all the other reasons we idolize old things.

  • DW

    One more:

    The elevating of “intellectual” heroes. The heirs to these heroes (Academics) seek to raise their status by association.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, you speak as if existing college curricula had been methodically designed for a specific purpose. Might it not be more accurate to view them as evolved, appearing as they do today because of tugs in multiple directions, by multiple people of influence, whether for better or worse, over many years? From the latter perspective, it should be no surprise that the final product seems illogical. After all, how many great novels were written by committees?

  • Greek and Italian immigrants didn’t have many complaints about the great thinkers featured in core curricula, such as Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Aquinas, Michelangelo, and Galileo.

  • I thought the idea of a “common core” education was precisely to accelerate the process of immigrants and other “outsiders” becoming part of the mainstream. In other words, if bright Eastern European Jews or Southern European Catholics get access to the Canon of Western Civilization, clearly labeled and packaged, they can hobnob with the best of the Anglo-American Protestant Establishment in no time.

    All the evidence suggests it worked, too.

  • Some interesting comments:

    The Western Canon (at least in theory) is the basis for why we act, think, govern, etc. the way we do. The general idea is to have citizens who are better able to understand and question what goes on around them.

    Most of our immigrants come from area that have as long of a tradition in the Western Canon as we do.

    It can also be rather divisive as to what to include (do you include Marx?).

    Related to the inclusion issue, the largest problem I see is that it is a very extensive body of work, and takes a considerable amount of time to work through. You then get into the issue of whether or not our universities are centers of learning and thought, or super-sized jobs programs.

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  • practical skeptic

    While I’m concerned about grade inflation and the race to the intellectual bottom, is maintaining a ‘core’ the answer? My ideal is for students to be able to choose any profile of classes and have the teachers compete for the students. This should drive the quality up, except for the small fact that the inmates have taken over the prison. Could we not move to an implicit ‘core’ that people would understand is necessary to join the elite without making it explicit? If we did do away with the ‘core’ what other options for quality control are there? While I don’t like top-down rules, I also don’t like seeing all the students who game the system and help to devalue the diploma. I think this is mostly a problem of the government subsidizing higher ed. and the quality falling because of it.

  • Mike

    I work at one of the A-List institutions featured at whatwilltheylearn.com

    It’s all about the faculty. It has nothing to do with the students. The faculty that teach such courses have managed to gain control of a handful of schools and this is what they have to sell. It is that simple.

    Naturally I would like to remain somewhat anonymous.

  • College cores are just one example of the larger family of sacred texts, hall of fames, the Top 100 ____ of all time, etc.

    Can’t be due to status, since there’s a canon of heavy metal albums that anyone must listen to before graduating to metalhead, and ditto a canon of horror movies for horror fans. Those are not high-status.

    Looks mostly like a strengthening of in-group vs. out-group feelings. You have to listen to that canon of metal albums because knowledge of, and hopefully appreciation of, them is what separates us from those white dorks who listen to rap or techno music. And you have to see that canon of horror movies because that’s what separates us from those wimps who only like feel-good comedies.

    You also see the same belief that if a canon were to be established, there wouldn’t be much disagreement over what it should include.

    The initiates want there to be a core that they’re “required” to take — it saves them a lot of time, money, and effort that would otherwise go into researching what the best metal albums, horror movies, etc. are. An enthusiast for Western civ would shout for joy that someone’s already put together a great books program.

    Only when would-be initiates are no longer interested in joining the group will the core get junked.

  • There is a core, by the way, at all those supposedly iconoclastic institutions. A non-enthusiast would call it indoctrination in political correctness, whether in classrooms or elsewhere, but the eager initiates call it learning about and celebrating diversity, “critical thinking” (self-censorship and ad hominem), etc.

    It’s very important to remember that the audience is always free to vote with their feet, so having a core in place and even its rough content must reflect the demand among would-be members, not something forced upon unwilling sheep.

    So that’s the real shift — it’s not “no core” replacing “core,” but core based on PC replacing one based on Western civ.

    • I didn’t have to take any of those courses in college.

  • stubydoo

    I used to have a girlfriend who was a product of an expensive (but not super selective) liberal arts college. She used to look down on my public-school educated self as being uneducated because I had not read the likes of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Funny thing is, she had no idea who the likes of J.S. Mill, Hobbes, John Locke, Kant or Descartes were. At least she knew who Karl Marx was.

  • I’m sure a lot of the things mentioned above had strong effects on core programs in a lot of colleges. Right now I’m a student at Harvey Mudd College (which is suspiciously missing from that list of ‘grades’ at http://www.whatwilltheylearn.com/ ), and it has a large, but I guess somewhat nonstandard core program. We(*) need to take:

    – 2 years of math (through differential equations, vector calculus, etc.)
    – 1.5 or so years of physics (mechanics, E&M, special relativity and a bit of quantum)
    – 1 year of chemistry
    – 1 semester of computer science (using Python!)
    – 1 semester of biology
    – 1 semester of signals and systems
    – 1 semester of a writing course
    (along with a less structured but equally large general humanities requirement, in which you have a lot more choice about what classes to take and when to take them)

    Most of these courses are taken at the same time by the people in a given class year. Thus I feel the biggest benefit of the core (besides gaining a lot of knowledge about disciplines you might work with later) is that it makes it a lot easier to form social relationships with other students in your class. Especially since collaboration on homework is encouraged just about universally here, and it’s a lot easier to work together with people when everyone is in mostly the same classes for most of their first two years.

    (*) The core was changed slightly after I completed it, so the numbers might be a bit off, but the general feel of it is the same.

    • It’s an engineering college. Most of that core seems practical and would be satisfied by any engineering major. The parts that aren’t general engineering prerequisites (chemistry, biology, special relativity) seem wasteful to me as stand-alone courses, and could be combined as part of a general cultural literacy 3 credit course that one can test out of.

  • A core seems to me to be the ultimate conservative class signal. The “truth” is to be found in the extraordinarily small (compared to modern times) library available in Europe 150 years ago, not in the astonishing explosion of work which has been developed by millions since then and is readily available to billions now.

    The observation that few propose a universal core for all citizens, rather it is for these schools. None of these people to my knowledge propose only hiring nannies and gardeners and marketing executives and professors who have taken these cores. That’s how unimportant they really think it is.

    The body of knowledge is vast now compared to what it was only 150 years ago, fuhgedaboud in classical times. Anybody hoping to expand this body of knowledge will recognize that each human in this effort will know only a tiny fraction of what is known by the collective. Even the people who take the core. In effect, the core is just another specialization, with efficiency occuring when not to many people for the demand pick that specialty.

  • aram

    It’s convenient to have a core because then you can really polish those classes, assign the best teachers to them and carefully monitor them to make sure they’re at the right level. It also makes sure that no one can take entirely the easiest classes.

    I’m sure there are other reasons too, but these practical benefits are significant.