Questioning the Common Core

Wil Stowers

When I first visited Colgate as a junior in high school, the words “liberal arts” held little to no value as my tour guide led me and my mother through the Coop, Frank and ––most memorable for me –– Case. When our guide began to discuss the Core Curriculum, my mother heard “challenges of maternity” and, from that day forth, thought Colgate teaches people what it is like to raise a child.

While my mother’s idea of what that class entailed ended up being incorrect, I find myself in the position of being unable to discuss what the class is actually about even after taking it. Challenges of Modernity is not alone in this regard; Legacies of the Ancient World is just as much about the texts taught as it is about the professor leading the discussions of the texts. A clear purpose of these classes has never been articulated; the academic mumbo-jumbo that one finds while perusing the academic sections of the Colgate website and scanning the pages of the course catalogue is not sufficient for many students.

Whether by accident or some cruel act of a committee years ago, Colgate students are required to take thirteen classes in addition to their major requirements. Of the six required classes under Areas of Inquiry, the four Core Curriculum classes and Global Engagements, most of them make sense. Most.

Areas of Inquiry require you to broaden your horizons, force you out of your comfort zone and could lead even the most skeptical student to fall in love with a subject matter they never considered. Communities and Identities allow students to focus on the history and culture of specific regions while Scientific Perspectives teach the basics of the scientific method.  While the latter may seem tedious, the need for such a foundation is apparent when one decides to watch a cable news network.

Global Engagements (GE), too, is noble insofar as it is designed to make students critically engage with region-specific problems, as well as learn how those relate to global issues. What defines a GE course, however, is confusing and it is wholly ridiculous that countless language classes and study groups do not count towards this graduation requirement.

When it comes to CORE 151 and CORE 152 — Legacies and Challenges — one must wonder what the point is. Is it to refine Colgate students to the point where, in fifteen years, we may sound intelligent at dinner parties by dropping Socratic ideals peppered with quotes from Nietzsche? If that is the goal, then why not make everyone take Latin and ancient Greek?  What is it about these specific texts that make them so special?  Are the works of Aeschylus and Homer important because they survived from antiquity or because they represent the foundation of Western culture? What exactly is the point of reading Freud’s work on sexuality?  

If you asked all undergraduates at Colgate these questions, you would probably receive many different answers. I fear that if you asked faculty members the same questions, one would see an equally divided body.

In many ways, this disconnect between the faculty, administration and students on the purpose and direction of the Core Curriculum represents the battles being fought over countless campus issues: Greek life, athletics, housing and financial aid, to name a few. Nobody can agree on what Colgate is, and that rift permeates into every aspect of campus life.

Neither a single person nor a single organization caused our problems with the Core Curriculum. Rather, the identity crisis that seems to plague the heart of a liberal arts institution, namely the Core Curriculum, represents the curse from which Colgate suffers as a whole. Until we can figure out exactly what we are, we cannot expect a core curriculum to exist that adequately meets the standards of artes liberales and provides an education for the 21st century. If we cannot answer these crucial questions, or at least come to a consensus as to the true goal of a Colgate education, then why are we here? What’s the point?