Monday, October 04, 2004

Continuing Discussion of Liberal Education 

The nature of liberal educations seems to be a recurring theme in my thoughts and those of others at the moment. The latest is a discussion of the relative merits of the core curriculum and distribution requirements models of general education in The Chronicle of Higher Education. By coincidence, my university is in the process of re-designing its general education programme, very much on the distribution requirements model. If you dare, follow this link to see the models currently proposed, though I warn readers that I found them largely incomprehensible (which is probably not a good sign).

I think I want to discuss this issue in depth and include some basic definitions, which will take me a while to put together. So tune into this space for more in the coming days.

OK, here's a summary of Barry Latzer's article in the Chronicle:

Barry Latzer writes: “Several months ago a committee of the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty recommended changes in the university's core curriculum, the required courses outside the students' specialization. Although the committee proposed new, multidisciplinary core courses, it also recommended the standard distribution approach to general education, which allows students freedom to select from a distribution of courses in five or six areas.” Latzer points out that “despite the popularity of the distribution model and Harvard's apparent endorsement, I've heard no fully persuasive argument in its defense. Moreover, a core curriculum provides certain marked advantages.” He continues:

Under the traditional core system the faculty designates the general-education courses in which the student must enroll. Over the years, by consensus, that has been subject to two limits: first, that the core courses would be relatively few in number, and second, that they would be general in scope. The result is a curriculum consisting of a small number of broad-based courses, like "Great Works of Philosophy" or "Landmarks of Literature"--courses that embrace the central knowledge and skills areas that the faculty deems important.


The typical distribution system requires the student to select a few courses in each of the following areas: physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences, writing skills, mathematics skills, and multicultural studies. The student is free to choose his or her courses from lists for each area. The trend has been to expand those lists almost without limit as faculty members press to have their favorite courses included and students seek greater and greater choice.…

Virtually unbridled student choice is not, however, a persuasive rationale for a general curriculum. It means that some, if not most, students will be deprived of the common core of knowledge typically expected of a liberal-arts education, thus risking the loss of what one might call a "cultural heritage." It ensures that students will study no common course work; they will have merely a set of exposures to broad fields. Worse, it invites trendy, esoteric, and even dubious offerings, courses ill suited to a sound general education.

In some cases, it has been possible for students to fulfill requirements by taking courses with dubious claims to belong to the distribution category. For instance, Latzer cites a “Living Religions of the East” course which fulfills a requirement in “Historical Perspectives” at the University of Iowa. Although one can see how such a course might be historically oriented—in spite of the title—one can also see how easily such categories can be abused. Equally, Latzer points out that under the distribution model, it is easier for students to fulfill requirements by taking courses that are so narrow that they lack the “depth and gravitas desirable for the students’ exposure to the humanities.” (He cites a number of pop culture-oriented courses, which I won’t copy here. Without getting into debates about high and low culture, I want to acknowledge the potential kind of abuse he describes but not attach that abuse to specific subject matters.) Latzer continues:

Leaving students free to choose courses without guidance from the faculty invites selection on the basis of superficialities, convenience, and mere whim. The result is a trivialization of general education to the point where the claims of the college catalogs--like Princeton's statement that its requirements "transcend the boundaries of specialization and provide all students with a common language and common skills"--simply cannot be taken seriously.

One of the consequences is that universities themselves are no longer directing their students into some of the fields of study traditionally deemed essential to a liberal education. According to Latzer, a recent American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that in a representative sample of institutions of different types, very few required a broad range of fields. Of seven key fields of study-- composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and science—nearly half the institutions required courses in less than six. Only 12 percent of the colleges require a general course in literature; a mere 14 percent call for American history or government; and not one college among the 50 demands that its students study economics. I suspect that the two most commonly omitted were foreign languages and history.

As Latzer points out, “Whether or not that is an unfortunate development depends on one's view of the proper purpose of general education. Yet it is that basic question that has all too often been left unexamined. The core and the distribution models offer two very different answers.” He continues:

With the distribution model, general education is a series of diffuse course experiences that expose students to ways of thinking about five or six academic fields. It does not matter if the courses are highly specialized, or even idiosyncratic, because the knowledge to be gained is less important than an appreciation for the methodology.…

The core model, in contrast, views general education as providing a common base of knowledge in the principal fields as well as common skills. That knowledge is viewed as the benchmark of a liberal-arts education, as well as a foundation for future study and reflection. The model also sees general education as preserving and transmitting from generation to generation the great works of music, art, and literature that are considered the crowning achievements of civilization.

Admittedly, one reason for the disfavoring of the core approach has been the challenge in recent decades to the canon of great works. A core curriculum, it is said, privileges some knowledge and writings over others and hence tends to leave out women, minority groups, and non-Western cultures. But a core curriculum need not have the same courses or readings that it had 50 years ago. It can include important works by all peoples. The Columbia University core, for example, has a major cultures component that explores the civilizations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. One can accept that there are great works and support a core approach to general education while debating the content of the honor roll.

Another objection to the core-curriculum approach is that it compels students to enroll in (and faculty members to teach) a mere handful of courses, like them or not. Of course, the essence of the core-curriculum concept is that only a relatively small number of courses are worthy of general education. For those accustomed to virtually unlimited choice, a core would require a new set of expectations. But as no fixed number of courses defines such a curriculum, there is no reason for a core to be unduly restrictive.

Academe routinely calls for critical examination of every conceivable social and political issue, yet at times remains curiously indifferent to its own policies. If, however, the quality and cohesiveness of general education matter--and surely they d--then trustees and college administrators must work with faculty members everywhere to undertake a thoughtful review of what general education is and what it can and should be.

For starters, here are just a few questions to consider: Should general education provide a common foundation of knowledge for students to share? Should general education expose students to the most important ideas, readings, and events? Should general education seek to provide a common foundation to facilitate the teaching of advanced courses?

So far, Harvard professors have not really answered those questions. If they were to do so, they might just develop a general curriculum for the 21st century that could once again serve as a model for the nation.

Bu videolardan en güzelini seçin ve izleyin. www.surprizporno.com sizlere keyif verir.

Post a Comment
This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?