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. …
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.
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.
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.
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.whatwilltheylear... ), 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.
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.
"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.
I didn't have to take any of those courses in college.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.