By Gabriel Martinez, August 16, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Professional Development, What is Education?
The 64-credit Core Curriculum is a major feature of my university. Students get introduced to history, literature, mathematics, Latin, theology, natural science, philosophy, politics, and art. Most of these courses are specified, so that (roughly) every student has a common topic of conversation. I think that we are rightly proud of our Core, of what it does for our students’ minds and souls, and of how it allows professors in disciplines like mine (economics) to teach the discipline as it is, knowing that the students will have the intellectual and moral resources to put it in context.
One difficulty with our structure, however – and this is not uncommon – is that there is no incentive for the Core to remain “general” education, as opposed to simply the area where students get introduced to a set of specialties, from which they will pick their major.
Every professor who teaches in the Core has an incentive to teach his course as the introduction to his specialty. Most of us put ourselves through years grueling study because we love our discipline – naturally we hope that students will, too, and that our departmental colleagues will share this love and will want to impart it to others. Reward structures are run by departments, which encourages specialization. Research is required by our profession, so we try to teach courses that could help us with our research.
The purpose of the Core, however, is quite different. It is simply to instill a love of learning, together with an awareness of the unity of truth and interconnectedness of intellectual pursuits. Depth and mastery of detail is not as important as learning to read with gusto.
(An education needs both breadth and depth. How can I claim to have instilled a love of learning in my students, if they don’t want to learn anything in particular? On the other hand, how can I attract students to my specialty if I don’t ask the big, unanswerable, speculative questions that make the specialty interesting?)
The problem is to evaluate a professor on his teaching of a Core class, independently of how that class serves other classes the professor teaches. The problem is to create incentives to ensure coherence across Core courses. The problem is to encourage quality scholarly research that draws from various disciplines.
A structure to evaluate teaching within the context of other courses; to ensure coherence across courses; and to encourage conversation and research already exists. It is called a department.
I’m curious to see what you think of this idea: a “Department” of the Core Curriculum, with its own chair, through which professors (who belong to departments but who teach in the Core) are evaluated for their service to this “general education” department, and encouraging (in the ways that normal departments do) formal and informal conversations.