Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Core and Hard Core

By Richard Vedder

My favorite newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, has two marvelous op-eds on higher education in today's issue, which, along with a magnum opus on the op-ed page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the nefarious Pennsyvlania Higher Education Assistance Agency done by Bryan O'Keefe and myself, makes this a banner day for higher ed commentary in American newspapers.(The gist of the piece by Bryan and me was incorporated into a blog on this site the other day that got a good deal of comments).

The "Core" in the title to this blog refers to Peter Berkowitz's superb plea for the institution of a liberal education core in American higher education. The headline says it all: "Our compassless colleges." Are there key kinds of knowledge that all informed citizens and future national leaders should have? Berkowitz says "yes" and I agree. While some schools like Harvard have made valiant attempts to revitalize the core, these efforts are typically little more than a menu of courses that students must choose from. No one must take a course in American history or Western Civilization (both musts in my book), or in political philosophy, great works of literature, or economics, not to mention a couple of the hard sciences (biology and physics). Berkowitz says these types of courses should dominate the first two years of study, and I am inclined to agree. If we don't know what binds us together as a people --our heritage--or the common issues and eternal questions that humankind has wrestled with over the ages, etc., we lose some of the cohesiveness and glue that make us part of both America and Western Civilization. I also agree with Berkowitz that a good curriculum would require students to have good familarity (two years) of a foreign language and some association with non-Western cultures and/or religions (e.g., a comparative religion course).

The major obstacles are two: one is an excessive vocationalism that is largely ill-formed. That is in part because most of the vocationally advantages of higher education are truly illusionary in a fundamental sense (not all: you need college training to be an engineer or accountant). The higher earnings of college grads comes in large part from the higher cognitive skills and determination of college students relative to their non-college counterparts. Besides, the vocational dimensions of higher ed, even where justified, can largely be satisfied within a major of 10 or at most 12 courses (with the possible exception of some of the sciences and engineering). That is plausible with a two year higher ed core.

The second obstacle: the faculty. Faculty teach what they want to teach. They hate to teach survey courses. They want to teach senior seminars and graduate workshops. They don't want to increase enrollments in Department X by mandatory courses, because it means smaller enrollment (and budgets) in Department Y that does not have a core course. They fight a common core for all the wrong reasons.

The "hard core" in the title refers to the great piece by Christian Sahner about Princeton's required sex-ed course. At Princeton, you have to attend a play that glorifies sexual activity, but don't have to study American history. Shame on this, going on at arguably our greatest undergraduate university (at least US News & World Report thinks so). At Princeton, probably 40 percent of entering freshman have not had sexual intercourse, yet the required play assumes sexual activity is the norm. At my own university, individuals who gain the ear of the Administration to push gay/lesbian issues have often shown marked intolerance and bigotry towards others who hate the glorification of these forms of sexual behavior. Instead of promoting tolerance to all legal forms of behavior, the university administration shows intolerance towards some. "Diversity" often does not extend to social, cultural and political views, but only to non-intellectual things like skin color. This is commonplace in American higher education. And it is a shame.

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