August 20, 2019 | 81° F

GIBSON: University core curriculum is most likely necessary evil

Opinions Column: What's On My Mind

At last week’s RUSA meeting, University Chancellor Debasish Dutta lectured about the current state of University affairs and his own academic and professional background, but what I found most interesting was the question he answered afterward about the core curriculum. A student asked if STEM students or others with credit-heavy majors should be subjected to the common core. 

In short, Dutta said yes, and I agree with him. This answer came just a week after the RUSA guest speaker was Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, who spent a portion of his time at the podium talking about undergraduate requirements and the core curriculum. 

In response to the STEM-student question, former STEM-student Dutta said his experience fulfilling the core may not have helped in the lab but made him a more well-rounded person and thinker. He noted that top schools are divided on the issue, highlighting Brown University, which has no core, and Columbia University, which has a wide swath of requirements. But Dutta said Rutgers is not a technical school, so solely focusing on your major is not the goal of our institution. 

I see the common core as a necessary evil. Everyone wants to be a well-rounded thinker — able to solve a quick math problem and recognize the components of a building’s entablature easily while sauntering down the street. A University’s core is the best way to achieve that on a collegiate level. I like to think of the University administrators creating our core requirements as a French salon of great thinkers, debating and sharing their expertise and then creating courses that show the best results of those academic discussions. In some of my required courses, though, I have felt absolutely miserable (not at the fault of the professors) because I have so little interest or personal claim to the class that just happened to fit into that subcategory of the core and my class schedule. 

Based on the last two RUSA meetings, I think administrators may be privy to my melodramatic difference between reality and expectation. And they are making active changes to the core curriculum to better accomplish the goal of creating well-rounded scholars. But, although they are thinking about the right problems, I think there are better solutions. 

The biggest change I have seen is the addition of the Diversity and Global Awareness requirement and updates to the 21st Century requirement (rebranded as Contemporary Challenges). These are definitely areas that I want my University to be interested in. But, with so many departments at Rutgers and so many classes available every semester, I do not see why classes that already exist and are regularly offered are not being evaluated to see if they could possibly meet core subsection standards. Instead of forcing students to look narrowly at a subset of required classes, why not simply make the options more diverse to begin with. 

The over-regulation of the core removes a lot of the choice that is associated with making a schedule, in terms of both how you spend your time and what it is spent on. Looking at the Diversity and Global Awareness courses, I see loads of great classes in many different departments, but not many will even regularly be offered (which is also the case with many of the older subsections in my experience). For example, for the Diversity and Global Awareness courses in the Department of Anthropology, there are more than 40 courses listed on the core curriculum website (two courses are listed twice with different names), and of that seven are available this semester, and one has a prerequisite. There is no reason those seven classes could not fulfill an existing part of the core curriculum, making the core itself innately more diverse without the addition of a new obligation. 

The core could also become less of a burden to students if there was more flexibility in how to fill each subsection. Students could make a personal claim in their well-rounded educations with a sort of independent study, if you will. Rutgers students not only are extremely diverse but also have diverse experiences that could be used in place of a core class with the approval of a department or a supervisor. Similar to any research project, students could present and report on what work they have done, and how they fulfilled requirements that are already clearly marked on the Rutgers Undergrad website.

It is important that the school is thinking about the core and how students learn. And it will be impossible to create a system that keeps everyone happy all of the time, but if the goals to improve the core are to create well-rounded, independent thinkers and encourage diversity of thought, then there are many more ways to continue its improvement. 

Brittany Gibson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in art history and journalism and media studies and minoring in French. Her column, "What's On My Mind," runs on alternate Wednesdays. 


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Brittany Gibson

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