Academic administration

The importance of a core curriculum (essay)

In a recent salvo in what some observers call the “war on the core (curriculum),” Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, points to the disadvantages of the ostensibly rigid and compulsory nature of too many fixed graduation requirements. He alleges that such a dynamic limits opportunities for intellectual exploration and development. Such criticisms might leave readers with the impression that colleges with strong core requirements leave students with little intellectual room to grow.

But naysayers rarely mention this: a thorough seven-subject general education sequence, such as the core curriculum for which the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates in its “What Will They Learn?” report, occupies at most 30 semester hours. It provides an unparalleled, diverse intellectual foundation for further study, while still affording students ample opportunity not only to complete their major but also to devote their attention to the topics that personally excite them.

Every educator will join O’Shea in his appreciation of the way that “serendipity” and discovery compose a major part of the excitement of liberal learning -- the “intervention of a gifted professor … taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.” But colleges should not confuse intellectual exploration with the absence of structure and intentional scaffolding of intellectual growth or overlook how profoundly curricular standards help students distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

How does a course on Horror Films and American Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder equate to an American history course designed to cover a comprehensive study of key events in our nation’s past? What about The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga, offered in 2013 at Indiana University, where the most frequent grade was an A-plus? These misplaced priorities are a predictable consequence of privileging curricular “serendipity” over sound curricular structure.

Students enjoy flexibility, agency and choice -- but they also need and appreciate direction and structure, rather than being left to pick and choose course sequences with limited intellectual coherence. How will students be ready for serendipity when it comes, if they lack the intellectual foundation required to meaningfully engage in those pursuits? A Lumina Foundation study found that students get “tangled up” when they are left with too many choices, lengthening their time to degree. Faculty members and administrators have an obligation to give students the framework they need to grow intellectually and graduate.

Attributing boredom and tedium to required courses, and excitement and joy to curricular choice, simply does not stand up to a logical examination of the facts. A required course can be taught well or taught badly, and the same is true of the most culturally relevant elective. Try telling graduates of core curricula at programs as varied as those at Columbia University, Hampden-Sydney College, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas and the University of Georgia that their experience was stale and intellectually limited.

The decimation of clear requirements and frameworks is likely a major contributor to a growing sense of drift and disappointment among college graduates -- and their employers. Survey data show that while nearly all provosts believe their institution is doing an excellent job of preparing students for careers, employers sharply disagree -- particularly when it comes to writing and critical thinking. A survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 26 percent deemed the critical thinking skills of their recently hired college graduates excellent. Just 23 percent thought that recent graduates were well prepared at “applying knowledge/skills to the real world.”

“Serendipity” is ultimately a poor substitute for academic leadership, for a board, administration and expert faculty coming together, determining the priority skills and knowledge that equip graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship, and then having the determination to reify those priorities in requirements -- not aspirations. Privileging faculty excitement over the needs of students -- about to face a ferocious, globalized job market -- is academic malpractice.

The survival of the liberal arts tradition demands that colleges act with urgency to clarify their requirements and expectations of students. Costs and sagging class enrollments are threatening entire majors and departments in essential subjects such as physics, philosophy and foreign language on many college campuses. Students at some liberal arts colleges are opting into vocational courses such as accounting and computer science.

Without rigor and cohesive requirements, the liberal arts will eventually confront a future of irrelevance. What’s called for here is a rigorous liberal arts education and facing up to our responsibility as standard-bearers in that process. Employers, taxpayers, parents and students are quite reasonably demanding more from higher education. Are we listening?

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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Dean of Music

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Thu, 06/29/2017

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A professor's invitation: Senator, please come visit my classroom (essay)

Dear Senator,

I’ll try to make you feel comfortable, if not totally inconspicuous. I assume of course there wouldn’t be a coterie of administrators anxious to produce a dog-and-pony show. And no cameras. Just a visit to an unvarnished college physics class, warts and all.

You’ll want to see for yourself students who come totally unprepared for class, and the strategies and energy I (and by extension, my colleagues) use to pull them out of their IT-induced stupor and begin to focus on the chalkboard. You’ll also realize the unmatched effectiveness of an active classroom led by a concerned human being. You’ll understand why technology-based learning never captured the 20 million or so ordinary students who continue to fill our classrooms.

At class's end, you’ll watch as students come by to get a point cleared up -- or just exchange a few encouraging words. Then you’ll begin to see why students taught by adjuncts anxious to leave for their next assignment are being shortchanged.

Afterward, we might spend some time in my office, where I’ll let you leaf through a range of textbooks to see for yourself the dumbing down of college-level material, one outcome of the “increase the graduation rate at all costs” movement. You’ll hear my comment that colleges and universities aren’t vocational schools, and that the faculty -- the people legislators never get to see -- are interested in learning, not loan repayment or career success, as college outcomes.

Not that I blame anyone. You and your staff are inundated by calls to "improve" or change accreditation by having accreditors take quantitative student outcomes into account. You probably don’t know that even though we’ve been hearing the "outcome" story for over 30 years, there has yet to be found a quantitative outcome that is reliable and valid.

If you have time, I would explain to you how the emphasis on numerical outcomes led directly to the Corinthian Colleges disaster, and I would also explain why the direct, hands-on peer review of traditional accreditation is unsurpassed at evaluating a school.

By the way, you’re listed as a supporter of legislation calling for innovative approaches to accreditation. Have you walked through how they would work? I have, and I’ll be happy to explain to your staff why these approaches would generate future Corinthians.

I would also lend a word of caution: students are not widgets. They are human beings who can suffer harm. If they are asked to participate in an innovative (there’s that word again!) approach to learning, shouldn’t they be warned that they might acquire less content, fewer skills, delayed intellectual growth in this new untested scheme? Here’s an idea for legislation: Why not require informed consent from students who are about to enroll in an experimental, pilot or untested program?

I digress. While in my office, I’ll show you some graded exams and my grade book -- names covered, of course. You’ll be relieved to know that nobody earns college credit for "seat time." Splinters are all one gets from simply sitting in a classroom.

And a point of pride: you’ll look at the range of grades and you won’t be able to correlate race, sex or ethnicity with the A’s and the F’s. Everybody works for good grades. Or not.

We’ll get a chance to talk to students -- randomly selected -- in the hall, or downstairs in the lobby. You might want to ask them about the College Scorecard, and the basis on which they made their choice of colleges. I hope your new insight won’t cause you to want to cut funding for the Department of Education’s statistics efforts. They do marvelous work -- even though few people seem to care.

And as the pièce de résistance, you’ll meet other faculty members. Just don’t mention the effort to increase data collection now being proposed. Can I tell you how one person I know would react?

He would theatrically slap his forehead and probably say, “Of course! How stupid of me! More data is just what we need to solve the problems of higher education! We’ll successfully address the racial gap, the rising costs, the disengaged students and students who are hungry. Before we go off on another harebrained scheme, why not test any new hypothesis against the longitudinal data we own in virtually every state? Nothing ever came of 30 years of gathering data, and another dose will add nothing more than expense and headaches.”

I’m sure you’ll forgive him, because in your career you’ve met other exceedingly bright people who are no respecters of personages. But I hope you’ll listen to his words.

Your day will be full -- but at the end you will be able to address higher education from a position of direct knowledge, rather than from experts. You might want to tell these experts that they, too, would benefit immensely from a day or two in a college classroom, or on an accreditation visit.

You, your colleagues and your staff are always welcome to come by -- unannounced -- to visit, and to experience a reality so important to our nation.

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.

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