Thursday, October 14, 2010

An idea of a university

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.


  1. no art, but religion!

    in a material-institutional sense i think most english faculty (who aren't totally shielded from the realities of undergraduate education by the prestige of their institutions or their privilege of doing more research than teaching) recognize that they're kept around in order to teach composition, at the lower and upper levels.

  2. I could be wrong, but I think the people who decided to require English courses wanted to ensure that our students could spell and avoid grammatical errors. The English faculty don't see that as being their job, so they don't do it (for the most part). That is, they don't see teaching literature or writing as being about spelling drills, etc. Maybe my school is unusual in that regard, but I sort of doubt it. I'm sure you're right, though, that the English people probably realize all this.

    I should have some arts in there. Hmm. But religion has to stay.

  3. well, they realize it, but of course they're conflicted about it in the ways that you would expect and that give rise to all kinds of internecine struggles, some of which involves refusing to debase themselves by correcting the spelling of students who are already supposed to be fully competent spellers, much as i might resist having to teach people how to reason at all. but even when you class things up a bit by admitting that remedial english shouldn't be forced upon them by the poor preparation of their students and the unwillingness of anyone else in the university to teach it, and that they do still have some potentially-proprietary work to do in teaching basic composition, they still sometimes chafe at being expected to do it on terms that do not obviously have a lot to do with literature, the nobler rationale for their institutional support.

    (the standard story about this in in graff's 'professing literature'.)

    i didn't notice until now that your scheme gives philosophers twice as many spots as everyone else that's lucky enough to get core currichterulum work! that's not going to play well during negotiation time.

  4. My scheme has no chance whatsoever of being implemented. And its biases are pretty obvious. But I still think it's a good one. The only core curricula I have any knowledge of seem to be the result of tradition, whim-from-on-high, and political compromise. I am biased in favor of philosophy, but then that's why I do it.

    I don't know what my friends who teach English think. They don't seem very conflicted, but I can see how they might be. And I don't know how much remedial teaching they do and how much they genuinely don't value that stuff and so don't do it. Everyone makes their own compromises, I suppose. I think I teach my students as much as they're prepared to learn, but perhaps everyone tells themselves that.

  5. I like "currichterulum" by the way!

  6. useful adjectival form, 'currichtular'

  7. One for the urban dictionary perhaps. Or perhaps not.

  8. During some extra-currichtular activity (mowing the lawn, I think) I came up with a revision, which I will include here for my sake, and for the people who apparently keep visiting this post.

    Instead of two 14-week semesters a year, have three ten-week terms (leaner, fitter, etc.). Every student would take 50 courses to graduate, so four per term over four years, plus some summer school or a couple of five-course terms. 10 courses would be free electives, 10 would be in courses related to the major, 15 would be core curriculum, and 15 would be in your major.

    So philosophy majors might have to take 10 courses of their choice from religion, literature, psychology, and politics. Maybe ancient Greek or German should go in there too. Their 15 philosophy courses would be a senior thesis, two philosophy electives, three courses in major figures in the history of philosophy (at least one ancient), three courses in value theory, three in metaphysics, and three in logic/epistemology/philosophy of language. Or something like that. Maybe epistemology should go in with metaphysics.

    The core curriculum would be heavily based on philosophy, English, and, especially, history:

    1. critical thinking
    2. contemporary moral issues
    3. world religions
    4. great essays and how to write one
    5. great speeches and how to give one
    6. (selected works of) Shakespeare
    7-9. any three of African-American history, Hispanic-American history, Native American history, the Scots & Irish in America
    10-12. any three of histories of the world, history of India, history of China, history of the Congo
    13. statistics
    14. history of science
    15. economic history

    Maybe this is too much history, but I'm thinking of what an informed citizen of the USA needs to know. There are probably some stupid omissions here, but this is what I wish my students knew.