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CHASER 7 The inherent Value of the College Core Curriculum L`ynne V. Cheney Through the centuries, the study of subjects like history, litera- ture, and philosophy has brought great satisfaction to people. St. Augustine once said that the only reason to study philosophy was "In order to be happy." A twentieth century philosopher, Charles Frankel, explained the joy that the humanities can bring by noting that peoples experiences are enriched if they know the background of what is happening to them, "if they can place what they are doing in a deeper and broader context, if they have the metaphors and symbols that can give experience a shape." Frankel himself used a metaphor to make the point: "Think of what the lore and legend, the analyses and arguments, that surround baseball con- tribute to our enjoyment of the game. They make the game, as anyone can discover by sitting next to someone who is uninitiated" (Franker, 1981: - lo). The humanities, he argued, with myth, story, and debate, initiate us into life. The humanities are valuable to us not only as individuals but also as a polity. Knowledge of the ideas that have molded us and of the ideals that have mattered to us functions as a kind of civic glue. Our history and our literature give us symbols to share and to help us all, no matter how diverse our background, to feel that we are part of a common undertaking. There is a story that illustrates this well. It comes from the autobiography of a woman named Mary Antin (Antin' 1969), who emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. In The Promised Land, she writes about becom- ing acculturated in the United States and going to school. She remembered one day she went to school and was feeling, as many children do, not very important, not very noticed, not very honored 60

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VALUE OF THE CORE CURRICULUM or valued by her peers. She learned about a person called George Washington, a man who was revered by his contemporaries and who was honored above all others in his time; she wrote, "I discov- ered that I was more nobly related than I had ever supposed.... George Washington . . . was like a king in greatness, and he and I were Fellow Citizens" (Antin, 1969:224). Communicating to the next generation the figures, ideas, and events of the past Is, for many reasons, a deeply important task. How well are we accomplishing it? Not very well, and not as well as we should, according to a Gallup survey of college seniors that the National Endowment for the Humanities funded a few years ago (The Gallup Organization, 1989). In that survey, 25 percent of the nationts college seniors were unable to locate Columbusts voyage within the correct half-century. About the same percentage could not distinguish Churchillts words from Stalints, or Karl Marxts thoughts from the words of the U.S. Constitution. The survey gave a list of phrases and some sentences and asked students to answer, true or false, whether the phrases are in the U.S. Constitution. one of them was Karl Marxist phrase, Prom each according to his ability, to each according to his need." One of four college seniors thought it was in the U.S. Constitution. More than 40 percent could not identify when the Civil War occurred. The majority could not identify Magna Carta, the Missouri Compromise, or Reconstruction. Most could not link mayor works by Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton with their authors. To the majority of college seniors, Jane Austents Pride and Prejudice, Dostoyevskits Crime and Punishment, and Martin Luther King, Jr.ts "Letter from Birmingham Jail" were clearly unfamiliar. It is not just in the humanities that college seniors are found wanting. The National Science Foundation recently sent a film crew to a Harvard University graduation and interviewed the bright, fresh- faced students who were about to receive their bachelors degrees. They were asked to explain why there are seasons. All of the graduates answered with an air of great authority, and also with complete inaccuracy. Most of them explained that there is winter because the earth is farther from the sun then. Even if you do not know the right answer to this question, you could quickly figure OUt that the answer the college graduates gave was not correct. If the essential point is that the earth is farther from the sun, then why is it not winter everywhere, in Canberra, Australia, as well as Cam- bridge, Massachusetts? So it is important to note that college seniors" lack of basic knowledge of major areas of human thought is not limited to the humanities, and it is important to remember that the failings described by these examples are not simply the result of 4 years of higher education. It is the result of at least 16 years of schooling. Nevertheless, it is possible to look at our nationts college campuses and see an im- portant part of the reason why we have college seniors who cannot 61

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AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE tell Churchillts words from Stalints or a good scientific explanation from a bad one. Students can graduate from 80 percent of the nationts 4-year colleges and universities without taking a course in the history of Western civilization. They can earn a bachelors degree from 38 percent of U.S. colleges and universities without taking a course in history, from 45 percent without taking a course In American or English literature, from 41 percent without studying mathematics, and from 33 percent without studying natural and physical sciences. In the report that we issued along with our Gallup survey, Fifty Hours (National Endowment for the Humanities, 1989), the National Endowment for the Humanities recommended a required course of study, a core of learning, to ensure that undergraduates have op- portunities to explore in broad-ranging, ordered, and coherent ways the major fields of human inquiry. This core, we suggested, might make up about 40 percent of the curriculum, or So hours, a figure that falls well within the range of general education credits required by most colleges and universities. AS it is now, however, the general education credits that could be devoted to a core curriculum are all too often organized into loosely stated distribution requirements. These requirements man- date that students take some courses in certain areas and some in others, and in catalogues there are very long lists of the acceptable choices. For the most part, they are specialized offerings. They often have very little to do with the broadly conceived learning that should be at the heart of general education. Indeed, some of the courses that seem to relate to, or that are listed as being part of, certain areas of knowledge seem to have little to do with the areas of knowledge that they are supposed to elucidate. At one public university in the west' it is possible to fulfill hu- manities requirements with courses in interior design. In 1988- 1989, at a private university in the East, one could fulfill social science distribution requirements by taking lifetime fitness. At a midwestern university, students can choose from almost coo courses, with topics ranging from the history of foreign labor move- ments to the analysis of daytime soap operas. The result of this kind of narrow presentation of giving students long lists of courses that are very narrowly conceived is what natu- ralist Loren C. Eiseley relates to what he once described as a meaningless mosaic of fragments. In his book The Unexpected Universe, he writes, "From ape skull to Mayan temple, we contem- plate the miscellaneous debris of time like sightseers to whom these mighty fragments, fallen gateways, and sunken galleys con- vey no present instruction" (Eiseley' 1964:6). It is a wonderfully written phrase that describes all too well the state of the curricula on many college campuses. A core of learning, on the other hand, can show a pattern to the 62

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VALUE OF THE CORE CURRICULUM mosaic. Talking what John Henry Cardinal Newman once called a "connected view of the old and new, past and present, far and near" (Newman, 1 982: l o l i, a core can provide a context for forming the parts of an education into a whole. In Fifty Hours, we set out one scheme for a core curriculum. We also examined the colleges and universities that have succeeded in establishing core curricula and found that it is being done in every part of the country. Although the number of these colleges and universities is still relatively small, their numbers are growing. The pace of change Is still slow, though, and it is no doubt in part because the task of designing a rigorous and coherent plan of study is hard, as we discovered when we did it at the Endowment. It undertakes to answer a very challenging question: What should an educated person know? It is challenging professional groups as well. AS I have talked about the subject of core curricula across the country and have had faculty members tell me about their struggles with establishing a core curriculum on various campuses, I have been impressed by the departments and disciplines they indicate are the obstacles to establishing a core. It is not colleges of agriculture but colleges of engineering that demand so much of the curriculum that it is very difficult to find time for general education. The other culprit named most often Is music educators, who also demand a great deal of the core curriculum for future music teachers and who make the establishment of a core curriculum for general education difficult. There are other obstacles to establishing a core curriculum. One is that we have found an Intellectually respectable way to argue that we do not need one. We say that it does not matter so much what a person knows in various fields; we have started to say that what really matters is that a person understands the methods of inquiry that are used in different fields. The issue is not knowledge but "approaches to knowledge," which is a quote from Hazards catalogue. There has been debate about the Harvard core curriculum since its beginning. It has been covered in the popular press as well as in the academic press. Critics argue that no matter how good the courses in what Harvard calls its core curriculum are and no matter how fine the faculty members who teach these courses are, taken together they do not provide the connected learning discussed by Cardinal Newman. The courses are a miscellaneous assemblage, critics say, rather than a coherent framework for learning. For ex- ample, a student can satisfy the history requirement by studying the Cuban Revolution or tuberculosis in the nineteenth and twenti- eth centuries. A student can satisfy the literature requirement by studying either Shakespearets later plays or, as stated in the cata- logue, "beast literature." There are many reasons tO explain why these narrow courses are offered. One is the emphasis on research rather than teaching 63

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AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE that we have seen on many college campuses. The fact that all rewards go to research and few go to teaching means, on the one hand, that there is very little reward for people who want to do the hard work of getting a core curriculum together. On the other hand, it means that without these broadly conceived courses being put Into place, people will teach their research interests. That is what accounts for a course on nineteenth and twentieth century tubercu- losis in the core curriculum at Harvard: It may be an important and interesting research topic, but it does not make much sense as a requirement for an undergraduate in general education. To be fair, there is another side to the argument. That argument is that Harvard does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of great books, the digestion of a specific quantum of information, or a survey of current knowledge in certain fields. In- stead, Harvard seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that faculty consider indispensable to under- graduate education. Harvard is not alone in this allegiance. It can be found in many institutions of higher education, and it can be found in primary and secondary schools as well. It is important to remember that these things are a continuum, that what happens in colleges and universi- ties almost inevitably trickles down to primary and secondary schools, where an emphasis on ways of knowing and on the process of knowing rather than on knowledge itself permeates almost every grade. In the various early grades, basal readers are used to teach students how to read. Again, their approach is the one that Harvard recommends. At the earliest level, students are not given real literature or Introduced to real stories; rather, they are given ap- proaches to knowledge, ways of thinking. The mental skills that these books aim to teach are often listed in the front of teachers" editions. The mental skills they attempt to develop usually involve such things as how to identify the sequen- tial order of events or how to follow directions involving substeps. The basal readers try to teach these things by constructing a plas- tic, artificial prose, not real stories. One mental skill that the basal readers particularly emphasize is how to find the main idea, which is an aptitude we all want our children to have. In looking through many basal readers, however, 1 have come across pages on which children have been instructed to find the main Idea and have discovered that there was abso- lutely no main idea worth finding. This exemplifies the difficulty of trying to teach skills without paying sufficient attention to content. Another extreme manifestation of this syndrome can be found at education conventions, where publishers fill their display racks with row after row of books that promise to teach youngsters how to think. These books are not quite content-free, but they come as close as possible. Their mainstays are exercises in seeing analo 64

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VALUE OF TINE CORE CURRICULUM dies: Is a triangle more like a human being or a wheelbarrow? Meanwhile, looming over the educational landscape is the Scholas- tic Aptitude Test (SAT), an examination that, in its verbal compo- nent, studiously avoids assessment of substantive knowledge. The SAT is indifferent to whether test-takers have studied the Civil War, learned about Magna Carta, or read Macbeth. The emphasis that the SAT puts on what its creators call devel- oped ability as opposed to knowledge makes this test unique among those used In industrialized nations. While our students are trying to sort out antonyms and analogies on the SAT, students in Japan are writing about the foreign policy of Afghanistan. Students in Germany are writing about the Weimar Republic and the develop- ment of democracy there. Students in France are writing about U.S. foreign policy from Jimmy Carter to George Bush. While stu- dents abroad are being tested on what they have learned, we are testing developed ability, which has nothing to do with what stu- dents have learned in the classroom. Another example of th e way in which, throughout our educa- tional system, we have elevated the process, the ways of knowing, and the ways of thinking above knowledge Itself Is in the field of English. The approach is called discourse studies, which is an approach to knowledge that has become enormously influential in literature. What counts most in such teaching and research is not the "what." The subject can be anything: a poem, a play, or a bumper sticker. What counts is the "how": How is this text, seem- ingly innocent, implicated in ideology7 That is the question that is asked. How can it be unmasked? At the University of Minnesota, the Humanities Department re- cently proposed abolishing its chronologically ordered Western civi- lization sequences and substituting three new courses: the first is called Discourse and Society; the second is called Text and Con- text; and the third is called Knowledge, Persuasion, and Power (university of Minnesota, 1989). In the old courses, the focus was on the works of Plato, Dante, Descartes, and Rousseau. In the new ones, the emphasis is on "the ways that certain bodies of discourse come to cohere, to exer- cise persuasive power and to be regarded as authoritative while others are marginalized, ignored, or denigrated." Instead of focus- ing on the writings of Wordsworth or Eliot, the new courses empha- size "hegemony and counterhegemony." Given the pervasiveness- or hegemony of the view that ways of knowing should have preeminence over knowledge, the time has come for a thoughtful and thorough examination of this idea. Let me pose two questions. First, even if we posit that the various fields of human inquiry are at the very highest levels of scholarship and are distinguished by differing approaches, is this a matter of any interest or use to undergraduates? I approach this 65

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AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE question from the standpoint of literature, and I must say that most undergraduates and people I have known who love novels, plays, and poetry are not interested in them as methods of discourse but as sources of insight into their lives and into the human predica- ment. Author Annie Dillard once asked, "Why are we reading, why would we read, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?" (Dillard' 1989:1). There is satis- faction, of course, in seeing how language achieves beauty, height- ening, and revelation. It is the achievement itself, however, the novel or book or play, that draws most people back time and again. My second question is this: When throughout our system of edu- cation we emphasize approaches to knowledge, what kind of young people are we likely to produce? Even if we assume that it is possible to teach the ways and processes of knowing without empha- sizing knowledge itself, then we could hypothesize a quick-witted, nimble-brained generation that, perhaps not knowing as much as they should, nevertheless has the ability to learn quickly. It may also be the case, however and this is the point that E. D. Hirsch (1987) makes that not knowing as much as one should severely hinders onets ability to know and to learn more, much less to learn quickly. Bernard Lewis, who is Princetonts distinguished professor of Is- lamic studies, recently told of teaching a graduate seminar and finding that the students in it did not know what the Crusades were. They had the modern meaning; they knew about a crusade as a cause. But they had no idea of the words historical significance. This would be a great hindrance to students engaged in advanced study of Middle Eastern history. Lack of knowledge can be an obstacle to understanding the present as well as the past. In 1989, a story in The Washington Post. "Teenagers Find East European Events Confusing or Irrel- evantn (Maraniss and Peterson, 1989), told of teachers across the United States trying to engage their students with the dynamic and moving events occurring in Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Czecho- slovakia and of those teachers finding their students confused and indifferent. The students simply did not have a sufficient historical context to understand the significance of the changes. AS one teacher put it, "They don't understand what communism is in the first place. So, when you say it's the death of communism, they don't know what you're talking about." During a discussion in which the former Eastern bloc countries were referred to as "satellites" of the Soviet Union, one student raised her hand and said, "rm sorry, but what is this talk of satellites? Are we talking about satellite dishes or what?" In our educational system, the emphasis on approaches to knowl- edge as opposed to knowledge itself is not the only culprit. We can find many reasons why students do not know as much as they should. But, surely, the emphasis on process and the neglect of 66

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VALUE OF THE CORE CURRICULUM content seen at all levels of education are important factors. If we do not emphasize that there are some figures, books, and events that are important to know, then we should not be surprised when young people do not know them. And if we do not undertake the hard work of setting out a framework for learning, then we should not be surprised when students do not have one and when they have difficulty making sense of new events. Concentrating on knowledge, on what should be taught and learned, as well as on ways of teaching, learning, and knowing, is not easy work. It may, however, be among the most important efforts that those of us who care about education can undertake. References Antin, M. 1969. The Promised Land, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Dillard, A. 1989. Wait till you drop. The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1989, p. 1. Eiseley, L. 1964. The Unexpected Universe. & World. Frankel, C. 1981. Why the Humanities? Address delivered at the Lyndon Gaines Johnson Library, University of Texas, Austin, December 4, 1978. (Published in National Humanities Center. 1981. The Humanist as Citizen. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.) The Gallup Organization. 1989. A Survey of College Seniors: Knowledge of History and Literature, conducted for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Princeton, N.J.: The Gallup Organization. Hirsch, E. D. 1987. Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Maraniss, D., and B. Peterson. 1989. U.S. students left flat by sweep of history; Teenagers find East European events confusing or irrelevant. The Washington Post, December 2, 1989, p. Al. National Endowment for the Humanities. 1989. Fifty Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students. Washington, D.C.: National Endow- ment for the Humanities. Newman, J. H. 1982. The Idea of a University. Notre Dame, Ind.: Univer- sity of Notre Dame Press. University of Minnesota. 1989. Humanities Department curriculum. Uni- versity of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Photocopy. New York: Harcourt, Brace 67