In an age when higher education is shifting away from the liberal arts, the three universities with the oldest core curriculum programs, Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago, will use a $280,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation to study the role of small-classroom, text-based core curricula within research universities.
With the Association for Core Texts and Courses, the three schools will host two week-long conferences titled “Core Curricula in the Research University: Challenges and Prospects” in June—one at Columbia and one at Yale.
“We are at a moment where there are particular acute pressures on the idea of liberal education,” Associate Dean for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás, CC ’95, said. “There’s an increased emphasis on the practical value of an education, and this provides an opportunity for us to articulate for a general public the values and purposes that underlie the liberal-arts idea, the liberal-arts endeavour. So we hope that this collaboration allows us to make a statement to the general public about the value and relevance of liberal arts today.”
Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago all have long histories of core academic requirements—Columbia first created its Contemporary Civilization class in 1919 while the University of Chicago started a Common Core series of classes in the 1930s. Yale has a set of distributional requirements that cover the humanities and sciences.
Montás said the conferences will bring faculty from around the world together to discuss how each university’s core program works and identify common issues that arise in core programs in research universities.
“The idea is that by talking to each other, we can clarify and strengthen our missions and put ourselves in a proactive position to address the significant challenges that we’re facing and that we anticipate we’ll face in the near future,” Montás said.
Yale’s Director of Undergraduate Studies for the humanities major Norma Thompson, who is also one of the three main faculty members involved with the Teagle Foundation fund at Yale, said that the schools want to focus on the current and future role of core curriculums.
“We are at a more basic definitional point: what should the role of the humanities be in undergraduate learning? And again, how do we measure this success, when it succeeds?” she said in an email.
“We are all interested in discussing what succeeds (and how we know) and in what can be successfully replicated in other colleges and universities,” Thompson said.
University of Chicago philosophy professor Jonathan Lear, one of the three main faculty representatives for the collaboration at his school, said that he is not interested in making changes to the core, but in sustaining the liveliness of it.
“The Core courses should be vibrant. This requires thoughtfulness, nurture and conversation,” Lear said in an email. “We value not only receiving an education, but sharing an education. We can learn from each other about what best promotes the experience of learning together, of forming an intellectual community.”
Nicole Wallack, director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia, said she hopes the schools will use the grant as an opportunity to think about how individual Core courses can reinforce each other in terms of both topics and teaching methods.
Wallack, who said she hopes to attend the conferences over the summer, said that she hopes the conferences will help improve Columbia’s own core curriculum.
“I can imagine better integration, more communication among all of the facets of the Core, in terms of our curricular goals. My hope is that in five or 10 years time that we will have a network of communication about opportunity that will help students take better opportunities to explore topics and questions over time, while they’re here.”
Montás said that it’s appropriate such a collaboration starts with the three universities with prominent core curricula.
“It’s a curious thing that these three programs, which are the oldest and certainly among the most prominent programs of this sort, have never before talked to teach other and come together to think about our shared mission and our shared commitments and challenges, so this is a historic collaboration,” Montás said.