How to reinvent higher education.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 8:26 AM

College Makeover

In praise of great books.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

For me, the best way to think about Stanley Katz's idea of a "magic wand" is to imagine what kind of effect we would want it to produce if we waved it. By effect, I don't mean what would happen to the curriculum ("Great Books" vs. "Distribution" or "Modes of Thought") or to pedagogical technique (discussion vs. lecture), but what would change in the lives of students. Helping students achieve competence in a certain discipline is the business of the various academic departments. Liberal education ought to be the collective effort of all departments to help students achieve two objectives in their lives: personal happiness and civic responsibility.

When these objectives converge more than conflict in the life of a mature person, we call that person a "citizen" in the normative sense of the word. It seems to me that underlying all schemes of liberal education, no matter how they differ in their instrumental details, is the idea that an educated citizen is someone who recognizes that personal happiness depends, at least in part, on making some contribution to what our Constitution calls "the general welfare."

Here, of course, is where the moral, political, and pedagogical arguments begin rather than end—which is why students need to be equipped to debate with others and with themselves what are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what, exactly, the general welfare might be.

At Harvard, where I went to college about 20 years after Katz did, such debates were pretty much left to the ad hoc mixing of students in the residential houses. Sometimes they happened. Sometimes they didn't. At Columbia, where I teach, we have something called the "Core Curriculum"—an attempt to foster the debate more formally. The Core consists of two yearlong required courses (a "Great Books" course called Literature Humanities, and a "Key Ideas" course called Contemporary Civilization), along with semester-long courses in music, art, and, recently added, a new course called "Frontiers of Science." There is also a distribution requirement designed to insure that students get some exposure to non-Western cultures.

I like this curriculum. I enjoy teaching in it when I can find time (these courses require approximately twice as much work as any other course—and, as Katz points out, all the incentives are to avoid them). And I like the effects of the Core on the students who enroll in my more specialized (not necessarily more "advanced") courses on this or that aspect of American culture. One effect is that all students bring to the table some familiarity with a common group of challenging books and therefore have something to talk about with one another. Another effect is that the random assignment of students to Core classes, which are taught in small groups, tends to work against the impulse to congregate exclusively with others of similar inclination, interest, or background.

I'm not sure how feasible such a core curriculum would be at other institutions. At ours it works pretty well. The students who choose to attend Columbia generally know what they're getting into, and Core courses furnish good memories for many of our alumni. In fact, I believe we should push the Core to live up to its original conception. The full name of the centerpiece course, "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization" emphasizes its introductory nature and its historical emphasis onclassic European texts. But "CC," as one of its faculty founders put it in the wake of World War I, was always intended to engage students with "the insistent problems of today"—toward the goal of ensuring that each generation "should be brought to some appreciation of its responsibility" as its steps out of college into the future.

For this reason, my colleagues and I in American Studies (we are a program, not a department) are trying to shape a curriculum in which junior and senior undergraduates, after completing their Core requirements, continue to engage the problems they encounter there, but to do so more concretely in the context of contemporary society—such problems as rights versus responsibilities; causes and effects of wealth and poverty; the relation between individual and group identity, and so on.

This means offering seminars (sometimes team-taught) on subjects that have both a long history and a current urgency—subjects such as constitutional debates over the limits of free speech, war and American values, or the ethics of triage in modern health care. As Katz points out, formidable obstacles can obstruct the development of a rich undergraduate curriculum. But I sense a growing appetite among students to think seriously about such issues, and a growing willingness, especially among younger faculty, to help them do so.