There has been quite a bit of discussion about the place of the humanities in higher education lately (for instance, here and here). It's tempting to jump in with my own defence, but I don't see much point in that. The problem seems to be a cultural one, and you don't change a culture with argument. Instead, let me just say what I think the problem is and then get to the real point of this post: to fantasize about a core curriculum.
The problem shows itself in the closing of departments of philosophy and languages (e.g. French) that are not especially important for business or the military. It also shows up in attempts to make higher education more vocational--supposedly we should be teaching business, nursing, and law enforcement in college, not literature, language, or philosophy. One cause of this might be the high number of people who are now going into higher education. It's possible that a lot of these people would be better off getting job training rather than higher education. Another cause, though, is surely ignorance about the nature of the subjects being demoted. Hence the amazing success that Sam Harris and other "professional atheists" (is that a Jon Stewart term?) can have selling amateur philosophy--no one (except philosophers, who are ignored) seems to realize that this is philosophy. Nobody would close an English department because nobody wants college graduates who can't spell, even though English departments do not teach spelling. Given what they do teach, it makes little sense to value them but not French or German departments. There is composition, of course, but that's not what English departments see as the reason for their existence. Perhaps they should. I don't know.
What I do know is that this is what I would like to see all students study, along with a roughly equal number of courses in i) their major, ii) subjects related to their major, and iii) electives:
1. Critical Thinking (to be taught by philosophers, who tend to be better with the logic involved than others)
2. Contemporary Moral Issues (also taught by philosophers)
3. World Religions (taught by religion professors)
4. World History (a single course going over both the outline of world history and various ideas about why history has gone as it has, e.g. Marxist ideas, Guns, Germs, and Steel, etc.--taught by historians, of course)
5. Modern Economic History (taught by economists or historians, focusing on what has actually happened and why rather than the possibly too pure theory of a typical Econ 101 course)
6. Scientific Origins (looking at the origins of science itself, but also the origins of the universe, of life, and of species--team taught by physicists and biologists?)
7. Uses and Abuses of Statistics (could be taught by mathematicians or probably any competent social scientists)
8. The Essay (taught by English professors)
This might be too ambitious, but the idea is that this is the stuff that informed citizens ought to know about: evolution, abortion, Islam, real-world economics, what good writing looks like, how not to be fooled by politicians and advertisers, etc. This wouldn't do modern languages much good, but if this were the kind of core curriculum typical of most colleges, it's hard to imagine them closing their philosophy departments. And it does seem like a good model to me (although, of course, I'm biased).
Oh well. Back to work.