Kate Malcolm has decided she has little use for core curricula:
I have a problem with [the liberal arts approach to] higher education. It seems to me that this approach assumes that college is necessary to be a productive member of society—“an educated citizen.” It also seems to assume that the quality of education at these universities would not decline if they imposed a larger core of required classes. I can’t say this for certain, but I believe that a larger core of required classes would likely result in bigger, less personable, less detailed classes. It might result in less motivated, less interested professors. It most certainly would sap resources from other courses. And it would also force specialized education more strongly into the graduate realm, depriving students who can’t afford those extra years (for one reason or another) of that educational opportunity.
I say phooey on the silly report. Keep the core out of our universities.
I must beg to differ with Ms. Malcolm, on at least a couple of her points. There is nothing inherent about a core curriculum that requires large, impersonal classes—such an approach is often advocated by penny-pinching college bureaucrats, but that has more to do with penny-pinching than any good pedagogical reason why Macroeconomics should be taught in groups of 100 instead of groups of 10.
To the larger point, I think a liberal undergraduate education is largely necessary to be a fully-versed, competent citizen. The purpose of a university or other four-year institution is not vocational training—if you want that, go to Ivy Tech, or go to engineering school. But no undergraduate degree outside engineering and the “applied sciences” (what respectable colleges call their vocational programs)—with the possible exception of a teaching degree—makes any claim that the degree will make you thoroughly competent in that field. Degrees in the liberal arts and sciences are intended as training in general competencies—how to think scientifically, how to come to your own conclusions based on information, how to think—rather than specific, rigorous training in the minutae of a particular field of knowledge, which is the goal of graduate and professional education (law school, medical school, et cetera).
And, in general, I think (in retrospect; as an undergraduate, I probably concurred with Ms. Malcolm’s assessment) that this is the correct approach—specialists are pretty useless outside their field of expertise without a general education to back it up. Witness the travails of modern journalists, who—armed with a B.A. in communications or some other “soft” specialized degree—routinely butcher the basics of the arts, humanities, sciences and mathematics, and confuse the common consensus of their colleagues with “objectivity,” all because their basic knowledge extends no further than a modicum of grammar and the ability to produce prose in “inverted pyramid” form. Those who deride the inability of the American press to “nail” the president might do well to remember that, “chimp” or not, he’s probably significantly more broadly educated than his would-be interrogators.
More core thoughts here.
Update: Stephen Karlson argues that Ms. Malcolm and I are talking past one another, although I personally don’t see it. My conception of the core is largely (though not completely) in line with that expressed in Millsaps’ core curriculum