March 20, 1996

Report: Colleges' Core Curriculum Has Largely Vanished


A study of undergraduate education since 1914 has found that the country's 50 best-known colleges and universities are no longer providing "broad and rigorous exposure to major areas of knowledge," once considered essential to a liberal-arts education.

The report, by the National Association of Scholars, concludes that the core curriculum "has largely vanished" over the past 30 years, and that there has been "a purging from the curriculum of many of the required basic survey courses that used to familiarize students with the historical, cultural, political and scientific foundations of their society."

The survey was conducted by reviewing the college catalogs of the 50 institutions over 80 years, focusing on 1914, 1939 and 1964 as pivotal years for the country and 1993, the last for which the group could examine data.

While some educators dismiss the report as old hat, the authors argue that their critics have closed their minds to what they choose not to hear. Stephen H. Balch, president and executive director of the association, which is issuing the report today, said the demise of the required course "has placed America in danger of losing the common frame of reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society."

Among the findings were these:

-- Fewer core courses are required. The percentage of credits from mandatory courses needed to graduate in 1993 was about one-third of what it was in 1964, and a fifth of that in 1914.

-- Students have more choices among free electives, rather than building knowledge through specializing after broader prerequisites. In 1914, colleges and universities offered an average of only 23 courses without prerequisites. The number increased to 127 in 1964 and 582 in 1993.

-- Assessment of graduating seniors has declined. In 1939 and 1964, more than half of the institutions required a thesis or comprehensive examination for a bachelor's degree. By 1993, only 12 percent did so.

-- Math and science requirements are shrinking. In 1914, 82 percent of the institutions required a math course and 86 percent required science. By 1993 only 12 percent required math (though an additional 32 percent allowed a less demanding course for non-majors) and only 34 percent required a natural science.

-- Foreign-language requirements are eroding. Until 1964, a foreign language was required by 90 percent of the institutions. By 1993, the percentage was down to 64.

-- Philosophy requirements have been virtually abandoned. In 1914, philosophy courses were required by 76 percent of the institutions. In 1993, only 4 percent required such courses.

Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, praised the report, remarking: "It made me think of how easily the movies made by people like Oliver Stone are accepted as factual. That's what happens when students can avoid taking a good, rigorous course on American history. It leaves them open to the Big Lie."

Founded in 1987, the association is an organization of faculty and graduate students based in Princeton that supports a traditional curriculum for higher education. Members include such prominent scholars as Jacques Barzun, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset and James O. Wilson.

But among other academics, the report was attacked as more of the same. Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "This report is a distraction. I don't want bingo education where you pick one course from column A and another from column B and then shout: 'Bingo! I'm educated!' We've gotten way beyond that. We're focused on standards. We're focused on the question of whether the student develops a real capacity to learn and to apply his knowledge to the world."

And Jerry Gaff, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, disdained the report as "20 years out of date" because many of the same observations were made by the Harvard Core Curriculum Task Force of 1977.

"But what's happening today," Gaff said, "is that most schools are actually strengthening the core curriculum. The institutions they studied -- the wealthiest ones -- are much less likely to be involved in educational reform. Those faculty members don't want to teach survey courses for non-majors, and they can get away with it, whereas, other institutions closer to the market are changing rapidly."

Russ Edgerton, president of the American Association for Higher Education, said that concern about the decline of the core curriculum is "half correct."

"We can't ignore the decline of requirements," Edgerton said, "but the real agenda of higher education today is the concern with problem solving, critical thinking, communicating and learning how to value."

The report's emphasis on the decline of prerequisites was challenged by several educators. Lee S. Shulman, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, said he thought it expressed "a deeply flawed concept of learning."

"There is no absolute, sequential highway to knowledge," Shulman said. "It is not God-given that you must take 14th-century French literature before you do 18th-century French literature. Instead, what we understand today is that there are clusters of courses that speak to each other."

As for the report's description of a decline in intellectual challenge to undergraduates, Frederick Rudolph, a professor emeritus of history at Williams College and a specialist in the history of American higher education, said he had deplored the decline of the core curriculum in his book "The American College and University: A History," published in 1968.

Rudolph added, "Almost anything lamented in higher education has been lamented for a long time."

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