Thoughts on core

The University of Richmond is currently considering various options for changing the required courses for first-year students.  For over a decade now, all first-year students have been required to take a two-semester core course, which is taught in many sections by many faculty members, but which has a common syllabus in which everyone studies, talks about, and writes about the same Important Texts.  Proposals have been made to change core, possibly replacing one or both semesters of it with first-year seminars on a wide variety of different topics, so that both instructors and students could choose to study topics of particular interest to them.

I’ve had a number of discussions on these options with my colleagues, including several members of the committee charged with developing them.  In at least one case, I think I utterly failed to make a colleague understand my point of view, and since he’s a very smart guy, I conclude that I explained myself poorly.  Here’s my attempt to do better.

I agree with the general proposition that it’s a good idea to require first-year students to take rigorous, writing-intensive courses in which they engage with big, important ideas.   These are all goals of core as presently constituted.  But there’s another aspect of core, namely that all students should simultaneously engage with the same big, important ideas — that is, that all of the 30+ core sections should read the same books.  I’m completely unconvinced of the merit of this, and I think that there are big disadvantages associated with it.  Something like the freshman-seminar model, in which students in different seminars study different things, seems to me better in virtually every way.

I’ll get into detailed arguments below.  First, though, I want to make one thing very clear: I don’t think that core as it exists is a bad thing, just that it’s not the best thing we could be doing with the resources at hand.  If we were talking about replacing core with nothing, I think I’d be opposed to that replacement.  But I think we can and should replace core with something better, and I think that a set of first-year seminars would be such a thing.

To me, the main disadvantage of core is that few faculty members have expertise in all or most of the various areas studied.

I don’t think that most proponents of core dispute this fact, but many deny its importance.  The argument goes that the point of core is to “engage with” the texts, and to use them to get practice thinking about big, difficult ideas.  The instructor is not supposed to be an expert but rather a facilitator in this process of intellectual maturing, so expertise doesn’t matter.

I don’t buy this.  Presumably the texts in core were chosen because the ideas in them are actually important and worth understanding.  Those ideas are in many cases also difficult to understand.  Someone who’s spent a lot of time studying Nietzsche, or Plato, or Darwin, or many of the other core texts, will be better able to facilitate students’ understanding of these difficult ideas than someone who hasn’t.  In each case, there are fruitful modes of thought for engaging with the ideas, and other modes of thought that are not fruitful.  A first-year student engaging with these texts needs a guide who can steer them in the fruitful directions.  That is, they need an instructor who’s got expertise.

If I put in a huge amount of effort over a long time, maybe I could reach the point where I could do a barely adequate job guiding a student through Nietzsche.  But with the same amount of effort (or less) I could do a great job guiding the student through Galileo.   Which is a better use of faculty resources?  Which gives the student a better experience?

(Incidentally, people have told me that I’m selling myself short in the above statement.  I honestly don’t think I am.  I have many flaws, but a low opinion of my own intellect is not one of them.  I think I’m a pretty smart guy.  I just don’t think that being smart is enough to make up for a lifetime of not studying something.)

A related issue is that core as presently taught is largely housed in the humanities, with relatively little participation from other parts of the university.  This year, roughly half of the core instructors are from departments having to do with languages and literatures; if you combine those with history, philosophy, and the arts, you get about 3/4 of the instructors coming from the humanities broadly construed.  There’s one instructor from mathematics, one from leadership, and none from the natural sciences or business.  Maybe that’s OK, but I think it’d be better if the first-year core courses were spread out more broadly.  I don’t know for sure that that’d happen with a first-year-seminar model, but the odds have got to be better.

Now let me discuss a few of the arguments I’ve heard in favor of core:

1. The intellectual climate of the student body as a whole is enhanced, because all students campuswide can discuss the same body of work.

In principle, I guess that’s possible.  I’d like to see some evidence that it actually makes a significant difference. Do first-year students actually discuss the core texts with others who are not in their core class?  Does that add to the intellectual climate more than the alternative, which is students having a bunch of different intellectually rigorous experiences that they can discuss with their friends?  Personally, I doubt it.  I think that exciting, rigorous, demanding course work has the potential to improve the intellectual climate, but I’m not convinced that there’s significant value added in that course work being uniform across campus.

If you have actual data to suggest otherwise, please show it to me.  (If you have anecdotes, on the other hand, please don’t.  I’ll make a deal with you: I won’t mention my anecdata if you don’t mention yours.)

2.  The particular ideas in these particular texts are so important that all students must read them in order to be considered educated.

In fairness, I’ve never encountered this argument firsthand; I’ve just heard it by hearsay.  So maybe nobody really believes this.

Anyway, the problem with this argument is that there are literally hundreds of texts as important as the ones on the core syllabus.  If  a student can’t consider herself well-educated without reading, say, House of Mirth, then surely she can’t consider herself well-educated without reading Adam Smith, Galileo, Dante, Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lao-Tzu, Hume, Einstein, and so forth.  (By the way, I don’t mean to pick on House of Mirth — it’s one of my favorite novels.)  The scholarly world is full of big, important ideas.  We can have a system in which students and faculty can choose from a broad range of these ideas, while still guaranteeing that everyone is grappling with big, important ideas.

3. The fact that all core sections study the same texts acts as a sort of “quality control”: in a seminar system, it’d be harder to assure that all students were getting an equally rigorous experience.

We can if we choose impose uniformity of expectations on seminars.  We can mandate a certain amount of writing, and we can have a faculty committee vet the syllabi to decide if the topics and readings are hard and significant enough.  If we do that, I don’t see that the quality-control issues are any worse than with core as it exists now.  Once again, if there’s any non-anecdotal evidence about the degree of uniformity of core expectations, I’d be interested to hear about it.  (It’s taking all my self-control to abide by my earlier promise to keep my own anecdotal evidence to myself, by the way.)

The issue of quality control comes up in other places as well, of course.  Take the general-education requirements, for example.  In order for a course to be designated as meeting one of the field of study requirements, its course description must be approved by some faculty body, and then after that we trust our faculty colleagues to behave professionally and do what they’ve promised to do.  I don’t see why the quality-control issues are significantly different for a first-year seminar program.

To summarize, I’m strongly in favor of a demanding, writing-intensive, first-year experience for students, in which they engage with difficult, big ideas.  But I think we should choose a model for that experience in which students have a wide variety of different big ideas that they can choose from, rather than all students having to study the same thing.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on core”

  1. Thanks, Ted. I will forward this to the Task Force.

    You make compelling points, and though we do not agree at every turn, I find the manner in which you make your claims to be productive and civil.

  2. Ted, as usual, I think your take on this issue is bang on. (And for the record, I think you’re a pretty smart guy too.) Let me add a few thoughts to your #2 above, the idea that there may be some texts so important that nobody can be considered “educated” unless they have studied them.

    If such a list of Important Texts exists, there is clearly no agreement as to what’s on the list. Suppose we declare that no person can be fully educated who hasn’t read Karl Marx. There are many universities where Marx is NOT required reading; do we really consider all of their graduates inferior to ours? In fact, the syllabus for our own core course changes somewhat each year. What’s required reading to be fully educated one year can become totally dispensable the next year. That’s pretty good evidence that the importance of “required reading” is overstated: the people doing the requiring don’t actually believe in it either.

    Interestingly, I myself haven’t read most of the books in our current core course. (I’ve read Plato’s Apology, but nothing by Nietzsche. I’ve read about and studied evolution in biology classes, but I’ve never read any of Darwin’s original works. I’ve read some Shakespeare, but never Othello. I’ve also read some Adrienne Rich and W.E.B. Du Bois, but never any Freud, and so on.) Interestingly, when I interviewed for my job here, NOBODY asked me about any of these works. Did they assume I’d read them all? Or deep down, did everyone I spoke to secretly believe what I do: that there may actually be more than one way to be well educated, and “great books” be damned.

  3. I forgot to mention one more pro-core argument I’ve heard: some faculty find it useful to be able to refer back to the core books in future courses, with confidence that the students have read them. I can see that this’d be nice — to come back to my favorite example, if I knew all my students had read Galileo, I’d certainly refer back to it in future courses. So I’ll concede this point to the pro-core side, although I think it’s a pretty minor consideration overall.

  4. The idea of referring back to certain core books in future courses does sound beneficial. In our science courses, it often comes up that we not only want but truly need our students to be familiar with some concept or method before taking a particular course. The mechanism we use for dealing with this is a series of prerequisite courses for each course. (The sequences can be really long: a typical 300 level physics course requires no fewer than five prerequisite courses. We found one in chemistry that even requires six!)

    While I concede the point that having a common knowledge base may be useful for some future courses, it doesn’t follow that the same common knowledge base is useful for all courses. Absent that, it strikes me that requiring a core-like course for ALL students is kind of a blunt tool for the purpose. A system of carefully considered prerequisite courses strikes me as the better instrument.

    Incidentally, I fear my language was a bit too bombastic in my previous post. In particular, I do not think that those who choose the books for core do so in anything but a careful and thoughtful way, or that they don’t deeply and sincerely believe in what they’re doing. As you say, Ted, there are several reasons for a course like core; the “great/required books” reason is only one of them. (And of course, I don’t really believe “great books” be damned, either. More like “specifically required books” be damned, and mostly just because there are so dang many good ones to choose from.)

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