The American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report grading schools on their ability to satisfy core curriculum requirements. Liberal arts programs in 100 top colleges and universities were all scrutinized to see how well rounded their course requirements seemed. Naturally, Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences did not perform so hot.
I visited this subject last semester, specifically targeting science and math education at Cornell, since outside of a few colleges, it’s horrendously lacking. But the argument easily extends to Cornell’s entire breadth curriculum. But how does it stack up to other peer institutions? This leads to a comparison of Cornell to our downstate cousin, Columbia, the other “CU.”
The report gave Cornell an F, for failing to require all but one course in their list of core subjects. Cornell got credit for its foreign language requirement. But Cornell failed to gain credit for composition, literature, US history or government, economics, mathematics and the physical or natural sciences.
You’re flailing about in your seat right now in protest; “But we require all those things! What about my writing seminar: ‘Homer Simpson as Philosopher King?’ What about ‘Chemistry for Poets?’ I took these courses!!!”
Cornell received an F rating, while our friend Columbia in New York, known for its intensive core curriculum for all entering students, received a B rating. A mere five schools of the 100 considered received As, including our favorite new poster child, West Point.
But the fascination I had with this survey did not come from its scientific rigor — it had none. Nor was I impressed by its even-handedness: Why is only US history counted? And couldn’t graphic novels be considered literature? Another major strike against this report is that ACTA’s members include Lynne Cheney.
Instead, the fascination came with the meticulous details the report extracted from these colleges when deciding if their fluffy survey courses would make the cut. Here’s why Cornell fared so poorly:
“No credit given for Composition because the First-Year Writing Seminars are topic courses in a range of disciplines. No credit given for Mathematics because the Mathematics and Quantitative Reasoning requirement may be satisfied by courses of little college-level math such as ‘Mathematical Explorations’ and ‘Evaluating Statistical Evidence,’ a course in the sociology department noted in its description as ‘not a math class per se.’ No credit given for Natural or Physical Science because the Physical and Biological Sciences requirement may be satisfied by courses with little science content such as ‘The Language of Chemistry’ and ‘Why the Sky is Blue: Aspects of the Physical World’.”
“Not a math class per se” — the professor himself is admitting this course probably doesn’t count as math, but there it is, on the list of eligible classes. Cornell, you saucy minx!
In comparison, here’s Columbia: “No credit given for Mathematics because math courses are part of the Science course list but are not required. The Core Curriculum, however, offers students an integrated and rich curriculum.”
Many will argue that a core curriculum is bullshit anyways. Why do I need breadth? I want to be a mathematician or an investment banker, or work for an NGO … And if you agree with that assessment you’d be joining the ranks of many well regarded intellectuals. Among the other schools receiving F grades were Brown, Berkeley, Yale, Amherst and Williams.
But this statement, no matter how popular, is not only debatable, it’s pretty much wrong. A great scientist or mathematician could probably win a Nobel Prize or Fields Medal with no ability to compose a compelling story, but he could never inspire millions to join his endeavor or understand his work. A Cornell investment banker will arrive on Wall Street unaware of the lessons of hubris discussed ad nauseam by the Ancient Greeks. A Cornell politician will campaign to sink a major spending project in his home state, having never taken a proper economics course that dealt with issues of public goods and welfare.
Knowledge may be dangerous, but lack of knowledge is even worse.
But should Cornell rush to adopt Columbia’s model? Columbia has an impressively long list of classes that every student (including the engineers) must take. My English major friend is quick to point out that this sort of rigid structure can often lead to a biased education — namely, a Western bias. You don’t have to dig very far to find this bias, as the flagship two-semester course is entitled: “Contemporary Civilization in the West.” I guess that’s to be expected of a campus that looks like the Acropolis. Another gem is “Masterpieces of European Literature and Philosophy,” also a two-semester indoctrination into the cult of self-congratulatory white people.
So what should Cornell do? The first American university can introduce more rigor without completely limiting choice. All schools at Cornell should remove joke courses from the list of eligible ways to fulfill breadth requirements. For instance, math options should be taught by the math faculty, and the options should be closer to traditional disciplines like linear algebra or real analysis. Similarly, writing seminars should be in the English or comparative literature departments, and feature stronger emphasis on composition. And political correctness aside, maybe requiring every student to read Plato wouldn’t hurt.