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Why American colleges need a global common curriculum in the 21st century

By Howard BlochJune 12, 2015

Graduate in cap and gown
Graduate in cap and gown Hept27/iStock

American colleges resemble each other uncannily when it comes to defining institutional goals. Whether a big, state university or a small, liberal-arts school, every college seeks to encourage in its students the activity of thinking carefully, critically and creatively. Every institution seeks smiliar things: a more diverse student body and faculty; to make a college education more affordable; to foster respect for difference; to build community; to make its campus safe; to foster international experience and global perspectives; and to act in ways that are sustainable for the planet. Most have succeeded surprisingly well. Yale University’s class of 2018 was 16.4% Asian American, 9.2% African American, 10.4% Hispanic/Latino, 45% white; 12% of the class are first-gen’s — the first in their family to attend college. The results for my alma mater, Amherst College, are comparable.

Once colleges have assembled such a remarkably diverse class, the students are supported to by a thick cadre of deans and tutors, resource centers and counseling services, plus athletic, health and dining facilities, which attend to every aspect of their physical and mental well being.

The one neglegted area in almost all universities, however, is its curriculum — what is actually taught to and required from the universities' increasingly diverse student bodies. Beginning in the 1960s, most colleges — with the exception of Columbia, the University of Chicago, and great book colleges like Saint Johns — abandoned core requirements, and some have even gone to an open curriculum, with no requirements at all. This suits the faculty, who are free to pursue and teach their own focused, scholarly interests; and it suits students, who feel free to choose among an epic array of courses, which may or may not be connected in some meaningful way.

No matter how good the system of advising, an open or near-open curriculum is a daunting prospect for students making the transition from the rigorous requirements of high school to the bewildering array of college electives. Students in their first two years of college are not equipped to make wise choices from among the 2,000 course offerings at Yale or the 850 offered at Amherst.

The time has come for American colleges, which are the envy of the world, to give the education they offer — at a full sticker price in excess of $60,000 per year — greater coherence and substance, in terms of a curriculum that fulfills the central purpose of college, which is to take the immature and uninitiated student to a point of creative and productive adulthood, and to prepare its diverse student body for the 21st century. 

What would such a curriculum would look like? Harvard and Amherst are in the process of conducting full curriculum reviews. But one powerfully plausible way to go is with a common curriculum to be taken during the first or first and second years, before students move on to a narrow specialization as part of a major. Of course, no one wants to return to the kind of Western–defined core curriculum that developed after World War I at Columbia and Chicago, and after World War II at Harvard, Amherst, and Yale. Those curriculums were established as a way to make sense of a chaotic, war-devestated world, and to make “Americans” out of the children of immigrants, who were the first gen’s of their day. Today, a globalized common curriculum makes a lot of sense in preparing college students to live and move in the complex and interconnected world into which they will emerge after graduation.

There is no better way to build community among the members of an increasingly diverse student body than by providing a shared intellectual experience of grappling with a common store of books, works of art and music from a variety of traditions. There is no better way to build connections among the increasingly diverse subjects that make up a university than by creating a well thought out, interdisciplinary plan of study — one that integrates the sciences, social sciences and humanities. There is no better way to broaden intellectual and cultural perspectives than by studying a comparative framework of the works and creations generated from the best minds, from around the globe and throughout human history.  

For universities to rethink and implement a global common curriculum will take imagination, commitment, lots of hard work, and, above all, courage. Faculty might find such a radical directing of educational purpose to work against the departmental structure of the liberal arts college. Here, it is worth remembering that many of academic departments at Amherst were put into place either at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. It is time to reconsider the configuration of the humanities and social sciences along the lines of the reconfiguration of the life sciences over the last 30 years to reflect new knowledge and, in the case of the sciences, the changed relation between biology, chemistry, and physics.  

On one account, a global common curriculum might look a lot like the one now in place at Yale-NUS, Singapore. The background and justification is available online in a document entitled “Yale-NUS College. A New Community of Learning”. In a recent book, titled "In Defense of a Liberal Education," Fareed Zakaria describes the document as the 21st century version of the Yale Report of 1828, which set the agenda for the classical curriculum of the 19th century, and the Harvard Red Book of 1945, which set a similar agenda for the 20th. Each made the best the case for liberal education in its century. 

The courses proposed below are, in essence, taken from the description to be found on the Yale-NUS website, modified to reflect the ecology and context of American colleges.


Comparative Social Institutions  

Humans are social and political creatures. We live in families, tribes, cities, nations and networks, and the way we live together plays an important role in shaping our individual patterns of feeling, thought and action.

In Comparative Social Institutions, students might investigate central questions about society and the human condition by comparing families, communities, countries and other social units across the globe and over time: 

What is social?

  • How do the social sciences inquire into the nature of the social?
  • How is human behavior influenced by social context?
  • What are the social bases of power?
  • What are the implications of social influence for understanding seemingly inexplicable behavior?

What is power?

  • In what ways are definitions of power contested, and why should we care?
  • How is power institutionalized and reproduced, e.g. by education?

How are race and gender socially constructed?

  • What are the consequences of racial and gendered thinking?
  • How do patterns identity and inter-sexuality evolve?
  • How have people exchanged goods and services in different places and times?
  • What social and political norms and institutions helped to structure these exchanges?

How has the nature of exchange changed over time?

  • What is unique about the way people exchange goods and services in the modern world?
  • How is the institution of “the market” commonly conceptualized today?  
  • What are the aims of markets as currently understood, and what forces complicate the ability of markets to deliver on their promise?

What denotes a family?

  • What is the relationship between the family and broader social orders and institutions?  
  • How do concepts of gender, work in the household, and “Love and Marriage” impinge on our understanding of family groups?

What do we mean by religion?

  • What are religions' elementary forms?
  • How does religion organize society — and vice-versa?  
  • What commonalities and differences distinguish the Abrahamic tradition — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — from other important world religions, and new religious movements?  
  • What role does organized religion play for migrant groups?


Current Issues

The liberal arts and sciences are an invaluable aid to understanding the world’s problems and thinking critically about possible solutions to current issues. For example: 

Climate change  

  • What is the local impact of global warming?
  • Are certain places more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than others, and why is this so?
  • How can we measure this vulnerability and what might be done to mitigate the negative effects of climate change? 

Food

  • How can food security be guaranteed?
  • What determines access to food and to what extent does this result from social or natural circumstances?  
  • Imagine doing an internship with a government agency concerned with food security or food safety. 

Poverty

  • How does government define poverty?  
  • What is left out of such classifications?
  • What causes poverty?
  • Imagine addressing these questions by visiting a county in the region where poverty is a serious problem, seeing firsthand the effects of such poverty and engaging with agencies involved in trying to alleviate it. 

Aging

  • How will society cope with growth in aged populations?
  • What does this mean for the provision of services for health, for the family?

HIV/AIDS and Ebola

  • What are the challenges posed by the current pandemic of HIV/AIDS and Ebola?
  • What is it about HIV and Ebola that make them so dangerous and deadly?
  • Why have they spread as quickly as they have?
  • What are the steps that could be taken to prevent their spread?
  • How does being diagnosed HIV positive affect an individual, as well as that individual’s family and community?
  • How does the public understand AIDS? How is AIDS portrayed in literature, film and art?
  • What are the political, economic, and human rights implications of HIV/AIDS and Ebola?

 

Foundations of Science, Integrated Science, Scientific Inquiry 

Foundations of Science aims to develop the skills, patterns of thought, and facility with science/technology that will enable the non-science major to lead a responsible life in this century. The primary learning outcome is to produce students capable of independent and critical thought, informed by evidence — data and experiment — while being able to state persuasively their case with data-driven analysis. This would include: how present data in visual and written forms; how to relate to Big Data, model and forecast; how to distinguish causation and correlation; and how to determine when a scientific claim is valid.  

 Integrated Science 

This approach emphasizes the connections between different scientific areas as a way to produce a deeper understanding of the individual disciplines themselves, and of science as a whole. It will offer the highest level of preparation for study and research in cutting-edge areas of science, such as computational biology and chemistry, climate science, biophysics, and a range of topics in nanoscience.  

  • How are particular topics addressed differently by various scientific disciplines?
  • How can one scientific discipline explain more complex phenomena that are of central focus in other disciplines?
  • How can emergent phenomena be understood and studied without reference to underlying principles?

Selected concepts might include, but are not limited to: big bang theory, relativity, electromagnetism, wave/particle duality, radioactive decay, information and entropy, atomic and molecular structure, formation of the solar system, plate tectonics, variation and selection, mitosis and meiosis, DNA and genetics, origin of life, equilibrium in physiology and ecology.  


Scientific Inquiry

Students are trained to understand the underlying assumptions of various methodologies in science.  

  • How do scientists design experiments to study objects that may not be directly observable?
  • How do scientists reconcile observations that seem inconsistent with one another?
  • What are the stakes when scientists make claims and counterclaims in peer-reviewed journals and the popular press?
  • How are useful ideas transferred from one field to another?
  • What does it mean to discover a scientific result?
  • How does one distinguish between pseudo-science and science?
  • How do we understand the boundary shifts which result from advances in scientific understanding?
  • How do we best communicate scientific ideas to a variety of audiences?

 

Historical Analysis

No liberal arts and science education would be complete without giving students experience in comprehending a particular time and place different from their own.  To truly understand a different context requires an assortment of skills: students must be able to interpret literature and artistic works; to evaluate historical evidence; to understand political and economic dynamics; and to weigh scientific facts with reference not only to the history of the West, but of Asia, South Asia and Africa.

They must learn that history is not simply the study of factual data about the past. Rather, history consists of the stories people tell about the past. History is a dialogue between the past and the present, an ongoing conversation among people in different times and places trying to make sense of their own world by understanding its origins.

  • Why did certain changes occur?
  • Why did others fail to occur?
  • To what extent has our world always been to some degree globalized?
  • What are the meaningful connections between those areas traditionally studied in isolation from one another? 


Global Literature and Humanities

This course aims to engage works created by various cultures of the world, European and Non-European, from the beginning of mythmaking to the early-modern period and. Poems, images and annals are studied for the light they shed on fundamental human questions, and for their own intrinsic truth and beauty.

We read literature from around the globe and from different historical periods to gather information about different times — the ancient Greek or Chinese, the medieval Italian, Indian, Arabic, or Japanese, or the Victorian Russian, English, or American. But we also read these works for what they continue to reveal and problematize about the enduring questions of war and peace, love and marriage, wandering and homecoming, loyalty and betrayal, nature and nurture, and good and evil.  

Texts of all sorts promote our inquiry into the conflicting human passions and emotions, the limits and consequences of over-arching pride and ambition, the enticements and constraints even of literary creation itself. Students in a global common curriculum will join communities of readers who have explored works of literature and art throughout the long history of these works — from Homer’s archaic Greek listeners to the international audience of the contemporary Ramayana traditions. By engaging in close reading and discussion to develop aesthetic, rhetorical, and cultural literacy, students will become cosmopolitan readers of the human experience.  

Potential works to be studied might include:

  • Classics of Western literature (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Christine de Pisan, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Borges, Derek Walcott, Ralph Ellison, inter alia)
  • The Indian epic poem, written in Sanskrit, ascribed to the Hindu sage and poet Valmiki, the Ramayana
  • The oldest collection of Chinese poetry, the Book of Songs 
  • Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories 
  • Selections from the Chinese classical novel The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Sima Qian, Records of the Historian
  • Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove
  • The Japanese epic the Heike Monogatari
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart 
  • Wole Soyinka, The Lion and the Jewel
  • Maryse Condé, I, Tituba Witch of Salem

   
Philosophy and Social Thought

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. Students in Philosophy and Political Thought are encouraged to examine their lives.  

  • Is the world that we see and inhabit a product of our imaginations?
  • Which habits of mind and action lead to the most fulfilling lives?
  • What does justice require of us?
  • Does history bring progress?
  • As one philosopher famously asked: What can I know? What should I do? And what can I hope for?
  • Can ethics/taste be taught? If so, how?
  • What roles do reason and emotion play in ethical behavior?
  • Is there one set of ethical virtues appropriate for all people?
  • How do the traditions of Confucian ethics differ from that of Aristotle’s ethics?
  • How can we properly begin to compare them?
  • What duties do we have to our parents or to our countries?
  • One view emerges in Mengzi’s understanding of Confucian ethics, while a different view can be found in Cicero’s Roman writings. How might these views be brought into conversation with one another, or were the historical contexts so different as to make them wholly incommensurable?
  • Is the state a form of political organization designed to secure freedom? Or is it a great threat to freedom?
  • The early modern European social contract tradition offers one answer, while Gandhi offers a very different view. From what perspective can we best understand the promises and pitfalls of the modern nation-state?
  • What exists? What ethical consequences follow from our answer to that question?
  • The Indian writer Nāgārjuna and the European philosopher Spinoza both argued that the reality of the world was radically different from, and simpler than, its appearance. Spinoza argued his points in sparse, logical prose, while Nāgārjuna wrote in riddling verse. How might the mode of expression influence the philosophic content of their thought? What distinguishes certain knowledge from opinion, imagination, sense-perception, and illusion?

While Descartes builds his philosophical system upon the certainty of knowledge of the self, a number of Buddhist philosophers question our very access to a unified self, and Nietzsche asks whether living well might not require a certain amount of falsehood and illusion.


Quantitative Reasoning

  • How can we convince ourselves, or other people, that an assertion is true?
  • How do we address real-world problems through quantitative analysis, and what may we reasonably expect from such analysis?
  • What are the different ways of representing the world in numbers and marshalling quantitative evidence to demonstrate the truth or plausibility of a proposition?
  • How do we criticize and question claims in an informed way?
  • What constitutes clear thinking, logical and intuitive reasoning, and appropriate standards of proof in different contexts?
  • What are the sources of bias and error in seemingly objective numerical data?
  • What are the basic concepts of probability and statistics?
  • When do these techniques provide reliable results? When do they threaten to mislead us?

 

What does it all mean?

In addition to the subjects studied in the above common core courses, American colleges should educate students intensively in the language arts: the modes of grammatical, rhetorical and logical inquiry essential to understanding written documents and other forms of human expression; the modes of reasoning needed to make crucial distinctions and to formulate concise thought; and the modes of expression necessary to articulate and communicate new ideas, regardless of the field.  

Language is not a transparent vessel, through which thought merely passes unimpeded. It is the very stuff of thinking. And it is the sine qua non for the effective transformation of ideas, no matter how good, into action.

With this focus on linguistic processes, an education should foster the recognition of significant questions, the making of crucial distinctions in the articulation of their terms and categories, the drawing of consequential conclusions, the assessment of conclusions in a human context, and the communication of the procedures and results of such inquiry. 

 

Where high school fails us

American high schools, where students once learned how to write effectively, have, with a few exceptions, given up the teaching of syntax and semantics. The result is an increasing number of students arriving at college without the linguistic tools necessary to read critically and write effectively.  

I do not, of course, suggest universities take on the task of teaching remedial high-school English, but reading and writing intensive courses and foreign language courses are the only places where many students, especially those from under-resourced high schools, learn the verbal skills necessary for whatever career path they may eventually choose.  

Writing skills should not be considered a separate subject, taught in a learning or writing center, but should be an integral part of every writing-intensive course of a common curriculum. During their first two years of college, every student should learn how to write, and learn the vocabulary and modes of thought of the various disciplines that make up a university.

It is sometimes said that core or common courses are less inaccessible to first-generation students or students from under-resourced high schools. This issue is addressed by the predominant presence of primary works in the above courses. In keeping with a long American tradition of pragmatism, a student’s direct understanding of reading assignments counts much more than knowledge of historical, literary, or philosophical background. Everyone is on the same plane when encountering primary materials.

 

Getting faculty on board 

One of the advantages to accrue to faculty under such a proposal is its potential for making community among professors across departmental lines. Core courses are the most powerful agents for the mentoring of younger faculty by more seasoned teachers, who share their experience on a day-to-basis around a common educational enterprise. Were the trustees and the administrators of America’s colleges to get behind a meaningful core, their enthusiasm would encourage alumni giving. A global common curriculum is something positive and forward-looking.  It provides a sense of common purpose that students and graduates alike can believe in. 

 

Freedom of choice

Finally, there may also be some objections from students for whom the open curriculum is synonymous with free choice, or freedom itself. America’s colleges are grand places, and they should offer grand things to students who at this critical point in their lives actually want, and have every reason to expect, something bigger, better, and older than themselves.  

The argument that required courses impinges upon freedom of choice is a specious one, in that every choice of eight courses per year eliminates hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of the disparate courses that make up an open curriculum.  Even in the midst of this global common curriculum, time might be organized so that students can exercise some personal choice regarding courses and other educational experiences.

However, students lost among the wealth of course choices during their first two years would find in the common core a unified and comprehensive curriculum on which to build further studies in the humanities, sciences, or social sciences — an intellectual resource for the framing of the rest of their education as well as the rest of their lives.