Episode 87: Assignment #7–Looking at Core Curricula

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Well, this is Assignment #7, which means that your teenager and perhaps you have done a lot of work so far. Take a look back and look at all you have accomplished this summer:

This episode’s assignment takes us back inside the college and right into the middle of the college curriculum, especially as it plays out for freshmen and sophomores.

Episode 87 Looking at College Core Curricula on USACollegeChat podcast

1. Your Assignment #7

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

For Assignment #7, your teenager and you are going to look at whether the college has a “core curriculum”–or what might be called “general education” credits or requirements or what we called “distribution requirements” in the old days.

2. What Is a Core Curriculum?

For the purpose of this episode, we will refer to this likely centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum.” What it means is that all students in a college, or in a specific college or school within a larger university, have to take typically one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining these groups of disciplines, with some more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning usually that there are many different requirements that have to be met and that might amount to a double handful of courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have a core curriculum, but have far fewer requirements for the courses or number of courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all. Would the presence of core curriculum requirements make a difference to your teenager in choosing a college?

3. What Is the Purpose of a Core Curriculum?

So, what is the purpose of a core curriculum? The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues of many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of content could make the difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that liberal arts colleges and that the arts and sciences college or school within large universities would support and require a core curriculum for its students.

However, some non-liberal-arts colleges and schools within large universities also have instituted a core curriculum. My favorite example of this (and we have talked and written about it before) is the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, which has this impressive and perhaps surprising statement on its website:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities.

Students are encouraged to consider the wide range of possibilities open to them, both academically and professionally. To this end, the first and second years of the four-year undergraduate program comprise approximately 66 semester points of credit that expose students to a cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines within the University. The sequence of study proceeds from an engagement with engineering and scientific fundamentals, along with humanities and social sciences, toward an increasingly focused training in the third and fourth years designed to give students mastery of certain principles and arts central to engineering and applied science. (quoted from the website)

So, at Fu, students are required to take some liberal arts courses early on in their engineering program in order to provide some humanities balance to the heavy load of mathematics and sciences that all engineering students take. The brilliance of this position comes in the notion that students who find that engineering is not what they had expected–for whatever reason–are well equipped to transfer to another field of study and move many of these core credits with them. For some engineering students, these liberal arts courses could be a drag; for other engineering students, they could turn out to save the day.

One important advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into whole academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools?like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without requirements in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of them and would never know what they had missed.

As it turns out, some colleges go one step further and require certain courses of all students?the actual courses, not just the academic fields. So, instead of saying to students that they must take two courses in the languages and literature, for example, the college will specify that all students must take Writing 101 and Public Speaking 101. In those cases, the college has decided to require those specific courses that its professors feel are most fundamental to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. Because all students have taken these same required core courses, professors can use that shared knowledge to help students make connections across subject fields every year from then on.

4. Examples of a Core Curriculum

When we did our nationwide virtual tour of colleges back in Episodes 27 through 54, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were super-impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite demanding of students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate the idea of a core curriculum. There are two groups of students who are likely to hate the idea the most. One group is students who do not feel confident in a range of academic fields (this often comes in the form of “I’d like to go to a college where I don’t have to take advanced science or math”). The other group is students who are anxious to get on with what exactly they already know they want to study and don’t want to waste time with other things (this often comes in the form of “I want to be a computer scientist, and I don’t see a need for these humanities requirements”).

Nonetheless, here are a handful of examples of some of the core curricula we talked about during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges:

Let’s start with a tiny Catholic college with a student enrollment of fewer than 200 undergraduates: Wyoming Catholic College, located in Lander and the only four-year private college in the state of Wyoming. According to its website, this faith-based college offers a classical liberal arts curriculum, which includes a study of the Great Books of Western culture and a serious set of distribution requirements, which includes 24 credits of theology, 13 credits of leadership, 10 credits of philosophy, and 16 credits of Latin. Interestingly, students graduate with a B.A. in Liberal Arts?not in a specific subject field.

Grinnell College in the “rolling farmland” of central Iowa offers a unique Individually Advised Curriculum, described this way on the website:

Every first-year student at Grinnell enrolls in the First-Year Tutorial, a small group of students [limited to 12] working with a faculty member to study a subject of interest to both students and tutor. The tutor also is the academic adviser for each student in the group, so that teaching and learning are closely linked with the planning of programs of study. In teaching, the tutor discovers the aptitudes and interests of the students, who in turn receive academic advice, not from an infrequently consulted stranger, but from a teacher who sees them several times each week. In planning a program of study, the student and the tutor balance the cultivation of existing interests with the discovery of new ones. An entering student should regard the first year as a time for gaining breadth in the arts and sciences, confidence in exploring a variety of disciplines, and a more mature understanding of the place of each of these in liberal education as a whole. (quoted from the website)

Grinnell does expect students to become proficient in written English by taking at least one appropriate course, to develop knowledge of mathematics and/or a foreign language, and to take courses in these three areas: humanities, science, and social studies. So, there are some distribution requirements, but extreme freedom in what exactly to take. When a student finally chooses a major, his or her academic advisor will be assigned from that subject field.

Let’s turn to St. John’s College, which has two campuses, with students often transferring for a year between the two: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico. But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor?all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way on the website:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year. (quoted from the website)

Students at St. John’s are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one serious set of core curriculum requirements.

Let’s move on to Middlebury College in Vermont, perhaps best known for its excellent language programs for a hundred years. In the classic liberal arts tradition, Middlebury students must fulfill two sets of distribution requirements: (1) one course in seven of eight academic fields (including foreign language); and (2) one course in each of four cultures and civilizations areas:

a. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean

  1. Courses that focus on the process of comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, or courses that focus on the identity and experience of separable groups within cultures and civilizations

  2. Courses that focus on some aspect of European cultures and civilizations

  3. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of northern America (United States and Canada) (quoted from the website)

Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S., offers its undergraduates the opportunity to study in the schools of foreign service, business, or nursing and health studies or in Georgetown College, the liberal arts college that first established the institution. Before pursuing one of more than 40 majors, students in the College must complete core requirements in a wide range of humanities and science fields, including two courses in theology, starting with either The Problem of God or Introduction to Biblical Literature as freshmen.

Colgate University, a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, has undergraduates studying in 54 majors, which come from a strong and broad liberal arts Core Curriculum. Students are required to take four courses in their first two years: Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, and Scientific Perspectives on the World. Students are also required to take one course with a Global Engagements designation and six more courses from three liberal arts and sciences areas.

Undergraduate students at Morehouse College, the all-men HBCU in Atlanta, are required to complete a core curriculum, which includes four courses in the humanities?one in religion, one in philosophy, one in art history, and one in music history. That is about as liberal arts as it gets.

But it’s not just small private colleges that have a core curriculum. The huge flagship University of Texas at Austin puts all of its freshmen into the School of Undergraduate Studies, where they explore their interests through a liberal-arts-and-sciences core curriculum of 42 credits. In their freshman year, students take UT’s Signature Course, which is actually an array of 150 course offerings for students to choose from, all of which provide college-level experiences in thinking and writing and speaking and research. Students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone when choosing from the Signature Courses, which are often interdisciplinary, like Astronomy and the Humanities. UT students leave the School of Undergraduate Studies by the end of their second year to pursue their major course of study.

At Penn State, typical undergraduates take almost one-third of their courses in the College of Liberal Arts. All students are required to take 45 credits of General Education courses, including three credits of writing-intensive coursework, a course in U.S. cultures, a course in international cultures, and coursework that covers social and behavioral sciences, humanities, natural sciences, quantitative skills, the arts, and health and physical activity.

It is hard to do this episode without a nod to our own two undergraduate alma maters, so let’s look at them. Here are the “distribution requirements” and the “breadth requirements” in Cornell University‘s College of Arts and Sciences curriculum (and these are in addition to two first-year writing seminars, a serious intermediate-level foreign language requirement–which many high-ranked colleges have, two physical education courses plus a swimming test):

  • 2 courses in physical and biological sciences
  • 1 course in mathematics and quantitative reasoning
  • 1 course that is in either sciences or mathematics
  • Five arts and sciences courses from at least 4 of the following social sciences, humanities, and arts categories:
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Knowledge, cognition, and moral reasoning
  • Literature and the arts
  • Social and behavioral analysis
  • Geographic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an area or a people other than those of the United States, Canada, or Europe
  • Historic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an historic period before the 20th century

While I would applaud these requirements for my own children and for the children of all of my friends, I can tell you that the requirements were not quite so demanding in the early 1970s. And, for that, I believe I am grateful.

So, let’s take a look at Barnard College‘s brand new curriculum, called Foundations, which I know you didn’t have, Marie, because it applies for the first time to students entering this fall. Barnard has what it calls “distributional requirements” and “modes of thinking” (in addition to a first-year writing course, first-year seminar, and one physical education course):

  • 2 courses in the languages
  • 2 courses in the arts/humanities
  • 2 courses in the social sciences
  • 2 courses in the sciences (1 with a lab)
  • 1 course in thinking locally–New York City
  • 1 course in thinking through global inquiry
  • 1 course in thinking about social difference
  • 1 course in thinking with historical perspective
  • 1 course in thinking quantitatively and empirically
  • 1 course in thinking technologically and digitally

I would have to say that those requirements are also quite demanding, especially for a student who, right or wrong, is not interested in broadening her horizons.

So, if all this is just too much, take a look at just a few colleges that do not have a standard core curriculum of courses:

Let’s start with The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college in Washington’s capital city of Olympia. Students at Evergreen take one interdisciplinary course, called a program, at a time, which might last one, two, or even three quarters. Built around a theme, a program integrates several subjects and is taught by a team of two to four professors from different subject fields. Students participate in a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, labs, and the like during each program. There are no required programs and no distribution requirements and no major requirements (because there are no majors) for earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and Science does have some math, science, or computer science requirements.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York, students pursue studies in 51 fields, based on a broad liberal arts and sciences curriculum that each student works out with his or her advisor. There are a few requirements?such as at least three writing-intensive courses?but there seems to be quite a bit of freedom in operationalizing the spirit of a liberal arts education.

Pitzer College, one of the five undergraduate colleges in The Claremont Colleges consortium in California, offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #7 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options, and I hope it is still long. First, note whether there is a core curriculum, or general education course, or distribution requirements, or breadth requirements, or whatever that college might call the list of academic fields or groups of fields or even specific courses all students must take. Remember, if it is a university, make sure that your teenager checks the college or school of interest to him or her; requirements may well not be the same for all of the colleges and schools in the university. Second, write down exactly what the requirements are. When the time comes to decide which colleges stay on the list, the number and rigor and breadth of the requirements might be something you all will want to consider.

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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