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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