Columbia University’s Alma Mater (sculpture by Daniel Chester French) gazing toward Butler Library.


by Nathan Birnbaum

Towards the end of my junior year in high school I entered the fray of the college admissions process, making decisions that would affect the course of the rest of my professional and academic life.  Quickly zeroing in on Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York I was excited not only by the class offerings at my fingertips but by its liberal minded philosophy towards a core curriculum, with students free to take their education in whatever direction they prefer.  Bound to meeting only a freshmen writing seminar, foreign language and quantitative requirement, I have been able to dictate what and how I learn.

But is this freedom beneficial on a wider scale?  Are there certain subjects and philosophies all students should be exposed to?  And if so, how do we decide what is taught and how?  By filtering out subject areas at Vassar that I am not particularly interested in – but which are necessary to gain a broader understanding of the forces that shape the American landscape – one could make a serious argument that I am hampering my ability to democratically participate as a global citizen.

As a starting place for discussion, lets compare the curriculum(s) of Columbia University and Brown University.  Columbia boasts a strict and structured core curriculum that is meant to introduce students to the “texts, ideas, and works of art that have deeply influenced the world in which we live, and that continue to shape how we think about ourselves and our society.  Brown University, on the other hand delegates the choice of a “core curriculum” to their students, with no required courses or types of courses necessary to graduate.

Slowly but surely, other institutions across the country have taken notice of Brown’s philosophy, and some are beginning to experiment with a relaxed, if non-existent, core.

I understand the merits and goals of this system of leniency towards a core curriculum.  College was always intended to allow students to break out of the structured education they had been confined to for the first 18 years of their lives.  Given this new freedom, it was assumed that they would find a subject, or subjects, that sparked their interest, leading to a life full of inquisitive study and passion for learning.  The problem is that this leniency virtue towards coursework has been placed on a pedestal and does not accurately reflect the usual considerations facing an 18yr old.

Most students leave college having taken in the range of about 24 classes (four classes a semester for four years).  Without guidance, it is unfair to assume that they would naturally pick a well-rounded schedule.  A college that lacks a core curriculum will only deliver as good an education as the free range of choices their students make, and not all college age students in America study at institutions as well-regarded as Brown.   But on a wider scale this freedom of education is overly idealistic when applied to the majority of college-age students across America.

Whereas I received a stellar education at a well-funded public school in Marin County, CA, other students aren’t so lucky.  American public schools continue to be grossly under-funded, which results in students having inequal access to studying materials and being taught by teachers with varying degrees of expertise.  This inequality will therefore translate into some students not necessarily being qualified to determine whether they have mastered the above subjects to a degree in which they should not have to retake them in greater depth at the college level.

The second, and most important, reason why a basic core must be in place is that students must be taught to think critically about a wide variety of subjects in order to evaluate and analyze the situations and questions posed to them in their daily lives.  One would hope, in turn, that this evaluation would lead to progressive thinking capable of changing our social milieu.  Admittedly this kind of education can be obtained by those who attend a university without a core just as much as it could be unobtained by one who has sat through a core.  But these types of truly educated and analytically advanced people I speak of are more likely to emerge if they have mastered a diverse range of subject matter.

Expecting college-age students to naturally gravitate towards sampling a diverse range of courses is, from my experiences at Vassar College, absolutely improbable.  Many of my peers –  and I for that matter – are comfortable with taking classes that only fit our interests, preferring to leave the “boring” subjects behind.  Taken at face value, this sounds like a swell idea to us.

But bearing in mind the reasoning above I think it is time we begin to seriously consider crafting a core curriculum that will be met by all students leaving America’s universities.  In my opinion, this core would feature simple requirements in the following areas: foreign language, math/philosophy, basic writing, art, economics, and English.

Every college student should take a course that teaches and expects fluency in a foreign language.  In an increasingly globalized world, we should no longer be taught to just understand our own country and traditions – breeding a dangerous espousal of American exceptionalism – but gain an appreciation for the diverse cultures, traditions, and beliefs of others.  Being able to communicate with one another is a key step in learning to respect one another as equals.

Mathematics, contrary to popular belief, is not just about numbers, but rather encourages a patter of logical thinking, forcing students’ brains to look for patterns and connections.  This type of brain exercise is closely linked to philosophy, where one must consider multiple routes of thinking to reach and understand a conclusion.  While many college-aged scholars despise math (I will admit that I fall in with this group), we should all benefit from the type of learning it encourages.

Moreover, too many students enter their professional careers with absolutely no grip on how to write proficiently.  Americans should be able to craft an argument and defend it on paper, as well as tell a fictional story birthed from their own imagination.  Being able to write would give students a better understanding of the critical process needed to comprehend and analyze what they read, as well as put a whole new group of people in contact with a form of communication which can beautifully and rationally describe feelings, situations, positions, etc.

Being a theatre major I am especially concerned by the fact that the arts have lost their value in the American curriculum. This must change.  Instead of open debate, discussion, or research, we should also be presented with an artistic interpretation of our common issues.  The creative process makes the exploration of the human condition more comprehendible, or in some cases, raises more issues for these student viewers to confront.

While our country’s unemployment levels skyrocket and the banking industry continues to game the system, more now than ever college graduates must come away from college with a formal understanding of economic theory.   To me, this means teaching both the tenets and failures of supply and demand, Marxist theory and socialism, fascism (yes it is relevant economic theory, not just Nazi philosophy), and Keynesianism (at minimum).  These theories are simply not interchangeable and are necessary to be an active citizen in our participatory democracy.

Finally, the interpretation of the “Great Books,” and English literature in general, must be integrated into any core.  These works give students a scope of human history and thinking, providing a basis for contemplating where mankind was, where mankind is currently, and what possibilities lie ahead.

Let me make it very clear: I am not arguing that the core classes must weigh on the minds of students throughout their entire tenure within a college setting; reasonableness would require that a core take up no more than a third of all units required for graduation.  The rest of a student’s energy should be tailored to focusing on their major and taking any elective courses of their choosing.

Furthermore, it is my hope that each college will advise their students to craft their well-rounded courses of study in different ways depending upon the individual universities’ tenets and backgrounds.  Thus, even an institution that preaches the virtues of a core would not prevent young adults from accessing the freedom that college symbolizes.

But to look at my course selections as they stand currently, and to ponder those of students who enjoy an education free from requirements and well-rounded areas of learning, is to wonder whether our generation, who has been trusted with placing their curriculum in their own hands, might be hurting themselves in the long run.  With all optimism, I hope not.

Nathan Birnbaum is a Drama major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Further Reading:

“A New Era of Engagement”, But for Whom? by Nathan Birnbaum, 7/15/09