The Core Curriculum

 

Rob’s post about his friend Harry got me thinking about the core curriculum. It seems to me you should not be able to graduate from a four-year college without fulfilling the following distribution requirements. They’re the bare minimum required to participate fully and usefully in American democracy, understand our culture, understand other cultures, and view the world from the perspective of an educated person. Anyone disagree?

Ancient, medieval and modern history: One term each. (When once I proposed to my father at the age of 16 that I wished to drop out of school and follow the Grateful Dead on tour, he stopped me cold with the question: “Who came first, Thomas Aquinas or Thomas Becket?” I couldn’t answer. Actually, I tried to bluff, but I guessed wrong. No one should graduate without a sufficiently deep understanding of the history of the West to be able to take a reasonable guess.)

American history, one term.

History of political thought, one term. I’m perfectly happy to replace every political science class on the books with history classes. And it’s not a science, by the way.

English literature from Chaucer to the present: Two terms. No need at all for “creative writing” courses, or any kind of writing course; students should be writing term papers in all of their classes. Above all, if they’re to learn to write, they need to learn how to read. No one should graduate without being able to recognize any obvious reference to Shakespeare.

Three years of a foreign language, including a survey class of that language’s literature. Yes, three. It takes that long to acquire any useful command of a foreign language. And I think a term abroad–or even a year–should be mandatory. If you choose the right language, it won’t be a financial hardship.

Formal logic, predicate and propositional, one term. Too many people just cannot think straight; this is the corrective.

Mathematics through a full year of calculus.

One term of physics, one of chemistry, one of biology.

One term of economics, macro and micro.

A survey course in philosophy.

A survey course in religion. And you better be able to explain to me the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis when you’re done. No one should graduate without being able to recognize any obvious reference to the Old and New Testaments.

A survey course in the history of art or music, preferably both.

I’m thinking that in the year 2010, a class in computer science is probably mandatory, too.

What do you think?

There are 45 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    The most important aspect is undoubtedly logic, however I don’t think that formal logic is necessary unless someone is pursuing a career in computer science or mathematics or the like. People need to know how to argue using conception, inductive reasoning, and deductive reasoning and can do so easily via a course on informal logic (or, as I did, by reading The Trivium). By contrast, the rigor of formal proofs with well-formed formulas and sentence letters is necessary really only for narrow computer science and mathematical purposes. Neither is knowledge of the propositional and predicate calculi really necessary for cultural literacy purposes.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    I disagree (obviously). Even the most cursory survey of any mainstream newspaper will show that most people can’t reason their way out of a paper bag. This reflects an educational deficiency that badly needs to be rectified. Logic-lite would be a good start, but formal logic is the gold standard. Only through studying formal logic will students really grasp the difference between syntax and semantics, form and content. They need deeply to understand the structure and meaning of arguments if they’re to have much hope of recognizing fallacies in scientific and political reasoning. Formal logic was long considered the foundation of every educational curriculum, and for good reason. Its influence stretches into every other subject–computer science, mathematics, etc, and these aren’t “narrow” subjects, as you put it, but worlds in which any educated person should be reasonably comfortable. No, I stand by formal logic. It’s just plain good discipline, too.

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @

    If you choose Danish, it will be a financial hardship.

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    @outstripp

    Mathematics through a full year of calculus.

    Arthur Benjamin says statistics is more useful than calculus for most people:

    http://www.educationfutures.com/2009/06/29/arthur-benjamin-drop-calculus-mainstream-statistics/

    and I tend to agree.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I think the deficit of reasoning can be cured without resort to formal logic (if I had my way, students would be introduced to informal logic in grammar school and “subjected to it throughout high school as well into college). Surely you know that the concepts of syntax, semantics, form, and content (or “matter” as it was taught to me by Sister Joseph) are covered within informal logic (or “Logic-lite” as some of us would label it). And, of course there’s no shortage of expositions on fallacies within informal logic texts. I’m thinking the following to myself: “Would I be happy if every student read The Trivium or Carveth Read’s Logic: Deductive and Inductive and understood them like the back of his/her hand?” Yes. If informal logic is taught like Xbox is played, then the young whippersnappers will be fine.

    The question is this: Is knowledge of the predicate calculus a necessary condition for the ability to, as you say, “participate fully and usefully in American democracy, understand our culture, understand other cultures, and view the world from the perspective of an educated person.” I’m not so sure, to put it mildly.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Arthur Benjamin says statistics is more useful than calculus for most people:

    I agree with this claim. In particular, people need to be educated in statistical inference (which falls under inductive reasoning) since so much propaganda and “damned lies” are defending using statistics (and not calculus). If people understood exactly what kinds of propositions could be validly concluded from statistics, then we’d be on our way to better government.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    I’ll go with statistics in addition to, but not as a substitute for, the year of calculus. I might be willing to accept logic-lite if it’s sufficiently rigorous. Part of my reasoning here is that everyone needs to go through a year of subjects that force the brain to work in a certain way, the way formal logic and the calculus do, simply to have an appreciation of what it means to reason in those ways — and why these subjects undergird all modern science and technology.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Conor Friedersdorf: If you choose Danish, it will be a financial hardship. · Jul 27 at 3:09am

    And also kind of a useless language, unless you plan to spend a lot of time in Denmark, not to mention pretty limited from the literary point of view. For “budget,” “useful” and “rich in literature,” Spanish will do nicely.

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  9. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Claire Berlinski: History of political thought, one term. I’m perfectly happy to replace every political science class on the books with history classes. And it’s not a science, by the way.

    What’s not science, history or political science? If its political science, do you mean political science per se or political science qua contemporary political science?

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    Political science isn’t a science. None of it.

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  11. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Take French to impress the ladies.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @

    How come?

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  13. Profile Photo Member
    @

    What’s science?

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I just remembered: formal logic is entirely deductive. There is no formalized version of inductive logic, yet inductive logic is just as necessary as deductive. So while the kiddies can learn formal logic and become math and computer science brains, they’ll suck at the “natural sciences” which require induction overwhelmingly.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Michael Labeit: So while the kiddies can learn formal logic and become math and computer science brains, they’ll suck at the “natural sciences” which require induction overwhelmingly. · Jul 27 at 3:43am

    Not to worry, they’re also required to take physics, chemistry and biology.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Michael Labeit: What’s science? · Jul 27 at 3:37am

    I bet we can settle this right here on Ricochet! Let me put this in my notes under, “Start a thread on this topic when things get boring.” I promise I will.

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  17. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Claire Berlinski

    Michael Labeit: So while the kiddies can learn formal logic and become math and computer science brains, they’ll suck at the “natural sciences” which require induction overwhelmingly. · Jul 27 at 3:43am

    Not to worry, they’re also required to take physics, chemistry and biology. · Jul 27 at 3:45am

    Well, hopefully those courses will either include or require for their attendance some sort of education in induction, since the scientific method, that which allows scientists to discover truths in physics, chemistry, and biology, is but an example of a type of inductive argument. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff and Physicist David Harriman stress the importance of inductive reasoning.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I’d like you to elaborate on the Calculus point Claire, because I just don’t see it. Statistics, even accounting, or a survey into theoretical math, but my one year of crappy Ivy League calculus taught by a nearly unintelligible Italian graduate student is utterly useless to me today — and I work with numbers daily.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    Ah, have I got a book for you, Trace …

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Playful and witty calculus. I’m there. And then maybe the nightmares of not having studied for my calculus exam will finally end.

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    1) If you take integral calculus, you essentially learn statistics, because the most useful application of the integral is to derive statistical data. In fact, I would combine the two- first, solid grounding in theory, then apply with statistics as the vehicle. Derivatives to see the trend lines and regression, integrals to collect the cumulative inferences and why.

    2) The way you destroy calculus is to give the student a lousy teacher, such as the droning text-reader from whom David Berlinski took college calculus. He grabbed it and loved the challenge of the logic and winning over the challenge- but he is an unusual and stubborn genius. Most of us need a little encouragement. My college calc teacher was a Chinese grad student who destroyed me (almost- I do have Tour of the Calculus by that famed author) forever, because he talked unintelligibly to the chalk board (yeah, I know that dates me) with an accent so strong I didn’t understand a word he said. “As apploach flom the reft, hit the rimit at the axis…”

    3) But I still struggle with remembering “e”, and need personal tutoring from David B. I’m going back to Paris….

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JesusHorowitz

    With minor tweaks looks a little like the Naval Academy/West Pt. requirements. But then you don’t get those Ivy League contacts.

    • #22
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    @MatthewGilley

    I tend to gush about my alma mater to the exasperation of anyone listening to me, but I can’t resist putting in a plug for Wake Forest’s Core Curriculum that is required of every student. It’s taken seriously – you can’t even declare your major until the spring of your sophomore year. I have noticed and objected that the school seems to be watering down the requirements (mostly at the urging of faculty who want to retreat to their little cocoons of “expertise,” by my estimation), but the Core is hanging in there.

    • #23
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    @GADean

    As much as I love the breadth of the course suggestions, I can appreciate the difficulty of getting all this in to a realistic “four-year plan,” especially as my daughter is attempting to manage exactly that puzzle right now. With her focus on international relations she’s got the history and languages covered (she’s studying medieval history in Instanbul this month, in fact) but with the scramble to get into the courses she needs (a big challenge at a public university) the opportunities to “explore” become limited. Perhaps if the eager young person was to get a start on some of these in high-school, and continue on to fill-in the gaps after collecting the bachelor’s. Education is really a life-long process after all.

    I was math focused myself, years ago, and especially fond of calculus, but my daughter has taken statistics as her math option and very much liked it. I can see that it is already very useful in her other studies. When open slots are few, it’s a good, and under-appreciated option.

    • #24
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    @StickerShock

    I think making study abroad for any length of time mandatory is incredibly elitist. So many families today are scrambling like mad to find affordable college opportunities for their kids that it’s simply one more barrier that would make the degree unattainable.

    I guess it’s natural to compare one’s own education to a proposed curriculum such as this. I come up short — no foreign language and no philosophy courses. I’ve still been able to participate fully and usefully in American democracy, understand our culture, understand other cultures, and view the world from the perspective of an educated person.

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Inactive
    @StickerShock

    G.A. Dean brings up a valid point. Often the scheduling options are quite limited, and students have a tough time fitting in what they need. The problem, in my opinion, is caused by the unwillingness of both students and faculty to take Friday classes. Check out the course schedules on any college’s registration catalog. Most courses run Mon/ Wed or Tues/Thurs. Suggesting the world of academia operate on a Friday is, apparently, crazytalk.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    The one of my three undergrad majors that I stuck with longest was diplomatic history. I am close to some diplomatic historians, some of whom have experience with both poli-sci and “IR” (international relations). Their universal view (as historians, but I agree with them) is that IR is a useless, pure “realpolitik” endeavor, essentially game theory applied to situations in the abstract without understanding the underlying issues. The underlying issues are taught to us by history.

    Kissinger’s realpolitik was informed by history- it was not game theory, it was assessment and comparison of how specific populations historically behaved in certain circumstances, and then how “Metternichian” balance-of-power ideas would apply in those situations, and how to ensure that the balance was maintained.

    For example, when the outreach to China was effected, it was accompanied by strong assurances to Taiwan that they may leave the UN, but their freedom would be defended. Same for Israel and the ammunition re-supply in 1973 while holding hands with the Saudis.

    Politics is an art, not a science. And it requires, as Harold Hill said, “You gotta know the territory.”

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  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Kofola
    I’m perfectly happy to replace every political science class on the books with history classes. And it’s not a science, by the way.

    It’s refreshing to read someone else make this acknowledgement.

    Michael Labeit: How come? · Jul 27 at 3:36am

    Not to speak for Claire, but I think she’s referring to the attempt to make the study of the humanities into a model based on the experimental sciences. Once upon a time academics studied government or politics, two different but not mutually exclusive terms. While students of such fields clearly still exist, they have been absorbed and overwhelmed by “political science”, referring to those who believe that politics can be measured, not as an art, but under objective, universal laws, deduced through a scientific method, whatever that means. The idea was, and remains, that these political scientists could objectively understand the social world and therefore “solve” perceived problems through social engineering. This concept is epistemologically impossible though, due to the inability to establish effective controls, as is available in physical science experiments. Sorry, this will continue into the next post.

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    StickerShock: I think making study abroad for any length of time mandatory is incredibly elitist. So many families today are scrambling like mad to find affordable college opportunities for their kids that it’s simply one more barrier that would make the degree unattainable.

    Why elitist? I’m not proposing everyone go to a Swiss finishing school or spend a year in Florence. The vast majority of the world’s population lives in cities where the cost of living is considerably cheaper than in the US. If you fly off-peak, choose your tickets carefully, and live more or less the way locals do, the cost of that term or year should be considerably less than the cost of a term or year at your average state university. Think Cairo, Quito, Madras–and if you think those cities too poor to be worth any student’s time, now, that’s elitist.

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Kofola

    The practical result is observations of social affairs that substitute reductionist theories for evidence and applied policies that have no functional value in the real world. The result can be seen all over the public sphere ranging from orthodox Marxism, to idealist IR theories such as that “arms production causes war, therefore the elimination of arms will lead to the elimination of war” to the more recent, postmodern “every white person is racist, they just don’t know it, because social constructs have ingrained it into their subconscious”.

    • #30
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