Shouldn’t we have a real core curriculum at Franciscan University?
by John F. Crosby
I am at present hard at work with my colleagues on the question of the core curriculum: do we have one? should we have one? which one? Let me tell you how I answer these questions.
You may wonder why I address the larger University community with my thoughts on the core curriculum. Is this not a matter for the faculty and its committees? By no means! We of the faculty need to know how the core curriculum has been working for students and alumni. I chair the Educational Planning Committee, which is supposed to lead the faculty examination of the core curriculum, and eventually to bring some proposal to the faculty for a vote. Your reactions to the argument that I am about to make would be extremely helpful to us in our deliberations.
The following remarks are bound to seem too negative, but I have a reason for taking this approach. I have found that most students and alumni will not, on their own initiative, voice any concern with the core curriculum, but I have also found that, once certain problems are pointed out, most of them will agree that the core curriculum is indeed seriously deficient. So I see no point in speaking for the status quo, which most are content with anyway; I want instead to issue a challenge to the status quo, and to see if I am right in thinking that most students are very receptive to this challenge.
Let me say right from the start that I do not see it as the main deficiency of our general education requirements that we require only 48 hours. You may be surprised to know that this is below the national average of 52 and is also well below our sister institution, St. Francis College in Loretto, which has a core curriculum of 60 hours. But my concern at present is only with the coherence of the 48 that we offer.
From now on I will in these remarks make a point of not speaking of our core curriculum, for I do not think that we have a core curriculum. In my opinion this term should be reserved for a system of designated courses required of all students in a definite sequence. Franciscan University once had a core curriculum; core curricula are being restored in many universities at present; but we do not have one in this sense of the term. What we have is general education based on distribution requirements.
Let me draw attention to what seem to me four main deficiencies in our present system of general education.
1. Fundamental knowledge
I take it for granted that the courses that make up a student’s general education, or liberal arts education, should convey fundamental human knowledge. These courses should center around the knowledge of “first things” in the various disciplines, otherwise they will never serve to promote a sense for the unity of all truth. But at present we let count as fulfilling the general education requirements all kinds of courses that can in no way be interpreted as fundamental or liberal. According to the Catalogue and the official lists of courses published in recent semesters, courses such as Youth Ministry, Administrative Law, Radio Production, Gerontology, Stagecraft can all be taken in fulfillment of the 48 hours required of every student in general education.
These are all important courses, especially for majors, and I am not proposing that any of them not be offerred. The question is why any of them should be reckoned to the general liberal education of a student. According to my analysis of the list of courses for the Spring of 1996 (excluding the education courses), 76% of all courses offered can be taken in fulfillment of the general education requirement! We seem to have gone so far in promoting diversity and choice that we have forgotten to provide adequately for truly foundational knowledge, knowledge that has some chance of forming a unity in the mind of the student.
Within any given course, one unit builds on the previous units. It is the same within any major program, where one course typically builds on another. But this so meaningful principle of letting one thing build upon another is discarded when it comes to the general education of our students. When an instructor teaches a course falling within one of the five areas of our general education requirements, there is not a single book or idea that he or she can presuppose. Some of the students may have almost completed the 16 courses required of them, but not even in their case can we teachers presuppose anything. There is quite possibly not a single course that all of these students have had. We never have the opportunity of picking up where our colleagues left off, but are always beginning from the beginning.
The result is devastating for understanding the unity of all truth, which has always been recognized as one of the great achievements of liberal education. (Besides, the faculty committed itself to promoting a sense of this unity when it passed last year its Philosophy of the Curriculum, an important university document that the readers of the Concourse should get acquainted with.) And why this loss of unity? Because all the work of integrating what is learned is thrown on to the student. We faculty cannot help the students because, beyond the content of our own course, we do not know what it is they are trying to integrate. Each student has a different body of knowledge that he or she struggles to understand in terms of first principles. Thus as teachers we teach only parts. The lack of any sequencing in the curriculum, as well as the lack of any designated courses, prevents us from teaching about the whole that the parts form.
Since everyone can do his own thing in the area of general education, the students do not have a common experience of learning in this area. They have a strong common experience in all that concerns religious life (liturgies, Life in the Spirit seminars, households); they have a common experience in Gaming; they have it in most major programs. It is being strongly stressed in this year’s theme of communio. But in general education we allow each student almost to be a law unto himself; here communio gives way to rugged individualism.
People argue in behalf of the present regime of general requirements saying that it allows for diversity. But would it be a good idea if, for the sake of diversity in the European experience, we sent some students to Oxford, some to Florence, some to Salzburg, some to Madrid—instead of having our own Austrian campus where all our students in Europe are together?
You may ask at this point: but what exactly is the educational advantage of a common learning experience? I would think that, just as we are social beings in so many other respects, so also in learning and understanding. When students have a common ground for conversation and debate, they can teach each other. We all know how this works in the setting of a single class. C.S. Lewis remarks in one place that students can sometimes teach each other more effectively than the teacher can teach them. They can help each other to find the unity of truth—as long as it is in the same materials that they are looking for unity. Of course it is true that students studying different things can also promote fruitful discussion. But with only 48 out of 124 hours being available for general education, there will in any case be plenty of diversity in the studies of our students, no matter how tightly we structure those 48 hours. The question is whether we have a reasonable balance between diversity and unity.
4. Catholic culture
Franciscan University prides itself on standing in the Catholic tradition of liberal learning, the tradition of Catholic thought and letters and art. It is one of our identifying marks in the Mission Statement. This tradition is embodied in works such as the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Summa of St. Thomas, the Cathedral of Chartres, The Divine Comedy of Dante, the B-minor Mass of Bach. The way the curriculum works now, only a small fraction of our students will ever encounter even one of these works and grapple with its content. How many of our graduates, if asked what Catholic culture is, would be able to explain it? How many could explain how it grows out of classical Greek and Roman culture? We strongly stress Catholic doctrine and Catholic practice, and rightly so; but we do not show any kind of comparable concern for Catholic thought, Catholic imagination, Catholic sensibilities. Otherwise the general education requirements would not allow students to elect around the courses presenting some aspect of Catholic culture.
You see the common denominator of these concerns: general education at Franciscan University lacks coherence; it does not promote effectively the unity of truth in the minds of our students; it does not initiate students integrally into Catholic culture. It is often said that our age is marked by a fragmentation of knowledge, by a specialization that creates many spheres of knowledge apparently having nothing to do with each other. In #16 of Ex corde ecclesiae John Paul calls upon Catholic universities to resist this disintegration of knowledge. It is above all in our general education that we would have the opportunity to resist: but who can seriously claim that our present general education requirements succeed in offering much resistance to it?
Look at the general education requirements at other universities, and try to find one where general education is even less structured than it is here. All the ones I have looked at have four or five general areas within which students must choose, and these areas commonly resemble some of our five. Many secular universities have more structure and order in their general requirements than we do. St. Francis in Loretto has considerably more. We strive for the highest excellence in the religious commitment of the University; but we remain completely undistinguished in the way we do general education. Of course, many individual courses offered here are excellent and compare favorably with the best that might be found within the general requirements at other universities; but I speak now not of individual courses, but of the curriculum, of the coherence of our general education courses, which is where we can contribute to recovering a sense of the unity of knowledge.
That general education is at present not effectively organized at Franciscan University, is clearly reflected in the way in which it is received by the students. As far as I can see, it does not make a strong impression on them; they do not experience it as one of the great events of their learning experience at Franciscan University. What they remember when they leave is, first of all, the intense religious life of the University; after that they are liable to remember their major program. Though they are enthused about particular courses and particular teachers in general education, they show no grateful recognition that the program of general education as a whole has been a decisive learning experience.
Just look at the way general education can affect the students at universities where a real core curriculum is in place. I spoke recently with a woman who graduated with a major in nursing from the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. She said that the liberal arts core was an unforgettable learning experience, and that 15 years later she is still drawing on what she learned in that core as she teaches her own children. As I listened to her it struck me that I have never heard one of our students or alumni speak like this about our general education requirements. When a well-crafted core curriculum works, students gratefully recognize that it is working, and they experience themselves being educated and enlarged precisely by the core. This grateful recognition does not exist here, and perhaps my four points above give a good part of the reason why it cannot exist.
The alumni at Columbia University apparently feel so indebted to Columbia’s core that, when changes to it were recently proposed, the alumni revolted and stopped the changes. If word gets out to our alumni that our general education requirements are going to be changed, I feel sure that we will not hear a peep, not a whimper from them. They will not even remember what the requirements were.
The student representative on the Educational Planning Committee, Lisa Gulino, agrees with my assessment. I asked her to take soundings among the students on the general education requirements, and she reported back to me in writing as follows: “In speaking to many of the students from a wide range of majors and ages, I find that they come to the conclusion 1) that there is a weakness in the cohesiveness of the core curriculum, and 2) that students feel that they lack a way of getting a foundational overview of the liberal arts.”
Finally, I think we should let ourselves be challenged by the fact that universities and colleges and even community colleges are everywhere restoring a real core curriculum, a fact that is well documented in the National Endowment for the Humanities study, “Fifty Hours: a Core Curriculum for College Students.” No one wants to follow slavishly the latest trends in education, but after all, the great curricular changes here at Steubenville of 1974 were strongly conditioned by the trends of that time. Sometimes there is good sense expressed in these trends; sometimes they bring some needed corrective. It should in any case give us pause that, for example, Piedmont Virginia Community College has far more of a core curriculum than we have. Perhaps it should give us greater pause that St. Francis College has recently restored something of a core curriculum.
But what do you, the readers of the Concourse, think about all of this? As I said, you should have a large voice in the faculty deliberations that are now going on. One way of raising your voice is to respond to what I have written.
Dr. Crosby is Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Franciscan University.