Monday, June 27, 2005

College Core Courses

The link below is to one of Jay Mathews' columns from the Washington Post talking about a required course at tiny Ursinus College. In an attempt to get students involved and impart a little broad based knowledge, the college has a one year course required of all first year students. The class involves works of history, art, politics, science and social theory that provides a springboard for thought and discourse.

I have to admit I like the concept but wonder, yet again, why such innovation and programs occur only at small colleges. One quick result might be the Political Correctness police at larger schools. The faculty board who would have to put together a course such as the one at Ursinus would quickly devolve into squabbling about which works should be included.

But the fundamental question survives--should colleges and universities be training grounds for workers or should they be fonts of thinkers; people who have the skills to quantitatively and qualitatively analyze any scenario and speak coherently on a subject. For me, I believe a university education should provide a basic to intermediate understanding of a broad range of topics. Thus allowing a choice of core courses enables students to amass the necessary thinking skills in topics of interest to them.

However, I do believe that colleges should require 9 courses, the same courses, for all students. Furthermore, these courses should not be "waivable" by taking AP or IB classes. These courses should be taken in the first or second year of college. Some of these are commonly taught in core courses, but the goal here is to make the course use a common curricula to get all students on the same page analytically. So here are the subjects along with a justification for my choice. They are presented in alphabetical order.

American Government. You live in America, whether you are a citizen or not, and far too many people don't understand the system of government that runs their life. This course should included a detailed study of the Constitution and Amendments, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence as well as the interaction between and among the federal and state and local governments.

Economics. This course should focus on macro issues, including various economic systems, the manner in which markets work and the application of economic principles to various problems in society. The course should also look at the interaction of various industries and how non-economic institutions, i.e. the government, the media and other groups influence economic behavior.

History of Science. This class should focus on the development of human understanding of the world around ourselves. This class, a survey course, would look at the major developments in the physical, biological and social sciences. The impact of scientific discoveries on society should also be explored in order to understand the role of science in society.

Human Anatomy. Far too many people do not understand how their own body works. By including in the course, topics such as health and nutrition, this course can provide all students with an understanding of human biology, how to care for the body, and the consequences of negative behavior. Maybe this could the the antidote to the Freshman Fifteen.

Literature. This is a tricky topic since any literature class that includes some works will, by necessity, leave others out which is going to irk some people. But the goal of this course is to provide a fundamental understanding of the role of literature in our history and society. At the same time, the course should provide a skill set for people to be able to read anything critically and analyze the writing for a purpose.

Mathematics/Statistics. The basic understanding of mathematical principles and the use of statistics happens every day. We hear about studies and polls that use statistics and sampling techniques. We use math in real world situations all the time, this course should reflect those ideas. I am not talking about advanced calculus or differential equations, but common, everyday uses of math and statistics.

U.S. History--like American government, you live in America and should be familiar with the development of our nation. This course should be taken concurrently with American Government in order to understand the relationship between the political history and the social history of the United States.

World History. By its very nature, this would have to be a year long course, short on details. However, the course should cover, major time-oriented developments, including large scale conflicts; religious history, (i.e. the development of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation, the rise of Islam, Asian religious); social developments; developments in government and nation states. The primary focus of this course is to give students an understand of the passage of events and the ability to analyze why such events happened, even if they don't fully explore or develop each segment.

Writing. To be honest, there needs to be much more focus on writing at the collegiate level. Too many students never write a significant paper beyond their early classes. I would like to see writing graded each year. This is the outlier to my suggestion. Each year in school, a student will be required to submit a thesis--a paper of substantial length (say 20 pages in the first year up to 60 or 70 in the final year of college) which is graded. The purpose of this is to get the student used to researching and writing for substance and thought.

There you go, the nine classes that I think should be the core course of any collegiate education. I realize that I leave many questions to be decided, such as who gets to determine which concepts are "major" or "important." But this idea is not fully developed and I seek input from others. Ideally, I would like to see these course taught at high schools, but that is a crusade for another time.

A Mix of Core Courses

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