Liberty gives US 'hollow' feeling

January 21, 2005

Times Higher reporters look at pressures on courses in basic subjects worldwide

The core curriculum of US universities has been called a "hollow" one and has become an ideological lightning rod on campus.

In a market-led system, faculty and students want courses that include non-Western literature and non-traditional material. Conservatives argue that graduates are not obliged to learn basic subjects.

US undergraduates elect to take courses across the full range of disciplines offered by the school of their choice. They select majors in their specific interest, guided by a core curriculum set by individual schools (or, in the case of some public universities, on a state-by-state basis). A typical core curriculum requires students to take one to three courses in each of five or six disciplines.

With no federal ministry or central authority exercising national control, institutions operate with autonomy, with programmes varying in quality and content.

According to a report by monitoring organisation the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the result is that students can graduate without studying maths, science, literature, economics, American history or government.

The ACTA report evaluated 50 colleges and universities, including some of the nation's best. Half failed their core requirements. None required a course in economics. Only 12 per cent required a general course in literature and 14 per cent a course in US government or history.

"Colleges have abdicated responsibility to direct students to the most important subjects," said Barry Latzer, professor of government at the City University of New York and principal author of the study. "Today's college student is free to enrol in the most fashionable or convenient classes."

Courses cited in the report include "Ghosts, demons and monsters", "Introduction to companion animals" and the literature of Tibet. "Whatever the merits of these courses," Professor Latzer said, "they should not be a student's first, much less his only, course in literature."

Universities - most notably Harvard, whose faculty of arts and sciences agreed last year to leave things as they are - seem to be sticking by their distribution requirements. Harvard aims at a general undergraduate education across the curriculum, from literature and the arts to social and physical science.

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