Electives requirements

Ivan Larson

Earlier this week, the Faculty Senate Core Task Force (SCTF) released a revised proposal for a new Core Curriculum for the University. A process of this magnitude, maybe happens once in a generation; it should not be taken lightly. The initial proposal looked good. It eliminated Lifetime Wellness from the Core, a course that did not contribute to the Core’s purpose. It restricted which departments have ownership over areas of the Core, which makes the courses more focused on what makes the area valuable in the first place. It replaced GPS, a failed initiative whose Border Crossing courses were close to useless, with a requirement to either take a language course or study abroad. Unfortunately, the new proposal from the SCTF rolls back much of the good and raises new problems that must be opposed by students, faculty, and administrators alike. 

But the new electives requirement guts the Core, strips it of meaning, and leaves it a shell of what it ought to be. On the surface, it deprives students of one perspective on one area of the Core. This in and of itself is damaging to the Core’s purpose. The aesthetics, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities all aim to make students grapple with important but nebulous questions. Because these questions are so abstract, it is difficult to get a full sense of them from one perspective. When astronomers try to plot the location of a star, they look at its position in the night sky at two times during the year when the Earth is in different positions around the sun. In so doing, they get two perspectives that focus in on the star’s true position. Similarly, studying two different disciplines that approach the same question provides two different ways to find an answer to that question. A single perspective gives a view of the question, but two give a much broader and better understanding of how to answer it.

This important point is lost in the new Core proposal. The electives requirement sends a message that the Core is merely a set of hurdles to get through and nothing else. If one student can learn all she needs merely by taking one natural science course, why does another student need two? Why require some to take a humanities course and others not? Why bother with requiring those electives at all? Each area of the Core has specific guiding questions that it addresses. We study Math/Logic to learn deductive reasoning, and we study the Social Sciences to understand social behavior. No such guiding questions unite an electives requirement.

The Core Task Force did good work in its first report. Creating controlling disciplines for certain areas of the Core is an excellent measure. It protects against colonization and core drift. Certain disciplines inherently deal more with certain questions. If you want to understand aesthetics, the first place to look is to the fine arts. It therefore makes sense to give art, theatre, and music professors have some control over what aesthetics courses are taught. Even in the additions in the second report, the pedagogy recommendations are good. It is important to make the point that class sizes in the Core need to be kept small, and that these courses should use original sources and be based in the Socratic method. The Task Force’s recommendations will let students take more from each Core course they take.

But the good done in the first is outweighed by the ill added to the revised report. As it stands, we are better off keeping the current Core rather than gutting the areas of knowledge. Even if for some reason it has been deemed essential that the Core be reduced to 42 hours, and if this is nonnegotiable, there are still better ways of doing so than what was recommended by this committee. In the revised report, Critical Cultural Inquiry is merely a token commitment to studying foreign cultures. A serious study of foreign language is worthwhile, but this culture study is far less valuable, and should be cut first. Another option might be to reduce the Composition requirement, the only area in the Core where the same narrow subject matter is committed to two courses. 

Either of these things could be cut while maintaining the integrity of the Core. If that is what it has come to, then so be it.