Harvard's general education reform will allow students to graduate without ever having read the same book or studied the same material. Students may take away much of interest, but it is the little in common they learn that will be of lasting significance. For they will absorb the implicit teaching of the new college curriculum -- same as the old one -- that there is nothing in particular that an educated person need know. . . .I haven't yet read Harvard's final report on its core curriculum, but I plan to do so. You can read it here. But I agree with Berkowitz that an educated society should have a certain baseline knowledge--some common shared background that can inform decisions that members of that society will make.
The reason to worry is that university education can cause lasting harm. The mental habits that students form and the ideas they absorb in college consolidate the framework through which as adults they interpret experience, and judge matters to be true or false, fair or inequitable, honorable or dishonorable. A university that fails to teach students sound mental habits and to acquaint them with enduring ideas handicaps its graduates for public and private life.
Moreover, properly conceived, a liberal education provides invaluable benefits for students and the nation. For most students, it offers the last chance, perhaps until retirement, to read widely and deeply, to acquire knowledge of the opinions and events that formed them and the nation in which they live, and to study other peoples and cultures. A proper liberal education liberalizes in the old-fashioned and still most relevant sense: It forms individuals fit for freedom.
Probably most of us agree with my little innocuous statement above ("we should have some knowledge in common"). The rub is that we won't agree on what that knowledge should be. We don't all read the classics, or even agree what the "classics" are. Most of us (including me? especially me?) don't speak more than one language, which puts us at a disadvantage when we compare ourselves to many other countries. We don't force students who don't "like" math or science to have a baseline proficiency in those fields, and we only use lip service to make the math- and science-lovers have a baseline proficiency in the humanities and social sciences.
Why don't we agree, in universities, on a true shared experience of a core curriculum? Because the current form of shared governance guarantees that we won't. Shared governance means, in practice at least, that people from one group have an opportunity to veto ideas from another group, even if those doing the veto haven't studied the proposition that they're vetoing. (Take a look at this op-ed. I seem to be in a Wall Street Journal-quoting mood....) In a (more?) benign view of shared governance, people from one department don't want to tell another department what to do. With all of the vetoing and deferring, the actual choice of what should go into a core curriculum is deferred indefinitely.
Who suffers? Not the ones doing the governing. Our lives don't change in the least, because we haven't had to make any hard choices. But the students do suffer. Without some shared knowledge, and without some sense of what knowledge is (useful? important?) to have, we run the risk of creating a real-life Idiocracy.
Although Idiocracy is not on my top-25-movies-of-all-time list, it does have a scene that I like:
Pvt. Joe Bowers: Why me? Every time Metsler says, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way," I get out of the way.
Sgt. Keller: Yeah, when he says that, you're not supposed to choose "get out of the way." It's supposed to embarrass you into leading - or at least following.
Pvt. Joe Bowers: That doesn't embarrass me.
I'd love to hear of a university with the type of shared governance that leads, or at least follows, rather than getting in its own way.