Thursday, September 06, 2007

Why Harvard won't really have a core curriculum

Peter Berkowitz's op-ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Our Compassless Colleges, describes Harvard's new core curriculum as "add[ing] up to little more than an attractively packaged evasion of the university's responsibility to provide a coherent core for undergraduate education." In particular, he notes that

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. . . .

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.
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.

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.

1 comment:

Richard Peck said...

A quick story (true) on shared governance:

The court I serve consists of 17 judges who collectively govern. A new courthouse is being built so the judges hired a space planning and facilities consultant to get the most bang for the taxpayers' buck.

He noted thatcourtrooms are expensive to build and equip and saw that only about half of ours are in use at any one time. So he recommended that each judge should have her own chambers but that there should be a pool of about 16 courtrooms for the 17 judges and 8 magistrates, that would be assigned as needed.

You know how judges are, so you can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from there. Suffice it to say that no judge could imagine how such a plan could ever work and each judge insisted she needed her own courtroom.

So much for the "bang for the taxpayers' buck" theory; the report on what was best for the whole went out the window, and that was the end of the consultant.

Shared governance works best when all are committed to the common good and disagreements are based on different perspectives of how to reach a common goal. I suspect that rarely happens, however. (Watch cspan and you'll see what I mean.)

My perception of how shared governance works in a law school is that the dean gets enough of what she wants and the faculty gets enough of what it wants to maintain an uneasy peace. It's nice when what each group wants happens to serve the common good, but it doesn't seem it operates that way, especially with a law school faculty that is not accountable to anyone other than each member's own conscience and integrity, while a dean is directly accountable to a faculty and provost. As you have seen, that's a huge leap of faith.

A cynic (i.e., me) might opine that while a law school faculty insists on sharing in decision-making and is glad to bask in any accomplishments, its collective sense of obligation and responsibility to a community evaporates at precisely the same time that fecal matter is aerodynamically injected into a rotating cooling unit.