The Core of Any College Curriculum

image from The Market of Ideas

The center of every university experience worth its salt is a grounding in the fundamentals of the human condition. For full and lasting impact on students, it should also be rigorous and challenging. Studies in history, literature, mathematics, “readin’, writin’ and arithmetic” are more important now than at any time since the Second World War. The Core Curriculum, sometimes called General Education, was born in the German Polytechnics.  The concept crossed the Atlantic to Manhattan, taking root at Columbia University in 1895, as the Gymnasium Program. It has changed dramatically, some claim diminished, as politically charged requirements to meet various contemporary social trends have overpowered the clarity of the original models.

As legitimate pressure from boards and elected leaders regarding the applicability of a university education grows, particularly as costs skyrocket, the workplace value of general studies is questioned. The ability of a person to interpret the Constitution of the United States, the Bible, algebraic expressions, or Melville’s symbolism in “Moby Dick” seems nice, but unnecessary.

You will not find a stronger proponent for practicality in a college education. However, when immediate utility exists without an appreciation for the broader social context in which the marketplace thrives or withers, value and utility fall. Market forces, vocational training, immediate skill-based employability do nothing to diminish the value of a strong core curriculum. In fact, they reinforce it.

A few years ago, I endeavored to help a student gain transfer hours from Jiliang University in Hangzhou, China. The student had no course in multiculturalism. He did have 12 hours of required Maoist philosophy, accepted by our university as college-level philosophy. He was also an accomplished speaker of Mandarin, passed the Tests of English as a Foreign Language, had a stellar academic record, had an excellent portfolio of architectural work and had traveled to nine countries. The argument from the Core Curriculum Oversight Committee was that these experiences did not satisfy the core curriculum multicultural requirement. The student did not need a course in multiculturalism. He lived a multicultural life. The very thing he sought to escape, the numbness of communist bureaucracies, hit him upside the head in the place he sought for the freedom to study. The point of this story is that too many core curricula, driven by narrow-mindedness, do not recognize the student as a human being with diverse life interests and experiences.

Core curriculum courses that emphasize topical aspects of the human experience to satisfy vocal political groups may have low long-term applicability and represent a fleeting fashion or sign of the times, rather than something of lasting value. Highly focused areas of interest are free online as avocations or pursuits of passion.

Randall Stross, professor at San Jose State University, argues forcefully in “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” for the value of a rigorous liberal arts education. Edgar Bronfman, former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, also believes there is great value in a liberal arts education.

The manufactured dichotomy between an effective liberal arts and science experience and vocational expertise is a mirage according to a Harvard Business Review essay. The mutually supportive coexistence of applicable technical ability and critical thinking skills is the basis of a quality liberal arts experience. It is inarguable. Even Mr. Bronfman wants his distillers to understand the technicalities of chemical reactions. The 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders, 35,000 taxi drivers and 16,000 parking lot attendants (all noble professions) that held bachelor’s degrees in 2012 did not all major in humanities and liberal arts disciplines but many areas of study.

In 1976, on the campus of Louisiana State University in a restroom at Hill Memorial Library, a young man had penned these words on the wall, “The problem with this place is everybody is trying to change the way you think.”  (Expletives revealing the depth of dissatisfaction have been excised.)  I reflected on his observation the rest of that day.

The next day, I returned to the same place.  Under the angry epithet was a more reflective proposition from another scribe in response to the first. ”If they don’t, demand your money back.”  The second scribe completed the thought and revealed his understanding of a university’s job.  I have reflected on these two observations from that day until this. Helping students learn to think clearly and reflectively and gain skills that will sustain life intellectually and materially is first purpose.

I started my studies, although I might not have said it exactly this way, “To learn to think like an architect.”  That’s what I paid for.  The core curriculum, coupled with excellent disciplinary training, provides a springboard to a thoughtful vocation and sound educational value for all who come calling.

A dedicated prospective student should find a challenging university that provides the opportunity to think and to do. Follow head and horse sense, you know, the balance of reason and experience ingrained in many by grandparents. Rigor, diligence and performance, valuable in every workplace, should be the core of every curriculum.


Freedom’s Fervor and Force

Seventh in a series on why U.S. Universities are great

American universities attract internationally excellent scholars. The strength of our universities is one factor, but the overarching concept of a free society, and the egalitarian nature of individuals succeeding based on merit rather than genealogy, politics, or national doctrine, is the real magnet.

Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says democracy and good science are woven together. “This is no accident, because the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.”

Nations around the world are imbued with science but, its exercise is most readily recognized and practiced in and through free societies. Science teaches and requires certain values. Dennis Overbye writes in a NY Times Op Ed, “That endeavor [science], which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”

Deliberative republican forms of government – translucent democracies — produce the best science. Dogmatic, dictatorial, or despotic states, where ideas and speech are controlled, produce politicized intellectual whitewash.

Scientists are competitive and understand the unalterable truth in the book of Proverbs: “iron sharpens iron.” Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, writes, The US understands what a research university is. Its institutions reward academic staff for productivity, and they have the infrastructures to support their academics.”  Rewards follow results and for many, in many nations, that calculus does not exist. Even some U.S. universities are sacrificing excellence on the altar of feigned equality.  The rugged individualist should be citizenship’s gold standard, on campus and in the public square.

The University of Miami provides instructive cases.  A January 2016 report from The Economist catalogs four:  “Montana Hirschowitz remembers exactly when she decided she would seek her higher education abroad: one night when she was ten, and armed robbers broke in and terrorised [sic] her family in Johannesburg. Quang Nguyen dates his decision to no particular moment: he simply did not want to spend a big chunk of his classroom time on communist ideology, as is standard in his native Vietnam.  Jehanne Aghzadi, from Morocco, had attended American schools all through her childhood; she wanted to continue her studies in English.  Joy Lin was looking for a better course than she could find in China, with more social activities on campus and the chance to gain foreign work experience after graduating.”  These students represent a desire for the freedom to explore. I have visited a number of campuses in Viet Nam and can attest to the envy that faculty at the National Universities in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) and Hanoi have for the students who break free of the shackles of mind-numbing, science-killing, group-think and “communist ideology.”

A free society creates economic opportunity. Forceful U.S. attraction for international scientists grows. Mary Mederios Kent reports, “Foreign-born entrepreneurs helped start one-fourth of all new U.S. engineering and technology business established between 1995 and 2005, including Google and eBay.” Intellectual freedom empowers economic opportunity, or maybe it is the other way around, but the results are undeniably the same.

Freethinking is powerfully compelling. Sixty percent of the U.S. engineering doctorates were earned by foreign students according to a 2010 report of The Congressional Research Service. In addition, 28% of the scientists and engineers in the U.S. are foreign born.  Fervor causes the best minds to run rather than walk to a free society.

The U.S. ante for research and development dwarfs all competitors: Spending equals 2.7% of Gross Domestic Product on discovery, nearly $500 billion per year, according to the World Bank. China, with its recent and rapid growth, comes in second with $350 billion per year. Other nations fade in comparison.  Free economies and excellence in universities work together.  The freeness of the Chinese economy is open to debate, but the quality of universities is growing as China’s campuses Americanize.

Three percent of the world’s leading scientists are Greek — 14% of that population (95 of 672) lives in Greece. Economic effectiveness in the Hellenic Republic is wanting. Two of the top 500 world universities call the ancient nation state home.

The relationship of powerful universities and a free functioning economy is undeniable. National and state leaders should protect every aspect of America’s embrace of both.

photo credit:

A Personal Reflection for the Season


This reflection was originally published on December 15, 2008.  It is worth a second look.

Christmas memories are personal, deep and important for me.

My family’s New York Christmases with the strong, first generational, influence of Western Europe; Cajun Christmases with their peculiarities of place and culture, half French and half Canadian and only in Louisiana, are unique and forever in my consciousness; west coast Christmases in California, an amalgam of eastern and western tradition, everything always new; Texas Christmases with cowpokes instead of elves, the detail and distinctiveness of each, all lost in the translation of what single Christmas memory is important for me.

Having lived in many places it is difficult to piece together a particular event that holds special importance.  The tradition, and thereby the memory, is not in events or places but beliefs and relationships I hold.

There is one recurring theme in what is powerful for me about Christmas and His name is Jesus Christ.

At Christmas I celebrate the anniversary of the virgin birth of Him as one member of the triune God – God made man – who came to the earth to be a substitute for me in the death and separation brought about by my sin.  This is a belief, my personal belief.  Through His perfection He makes my way straight to the creator of the universe.  Through the power of His shed blood I am forgiven for all my inequity.  All of this, not by my work or effort, wisdom or intelligence, but by His grace.

Grace is so difficult for me to grasp.

All things of value are worked for I am told.  That of which I speak, grace, has ultimate and eternal value, and it is a gift that cannot be bought or earned.   By His virgin birth I have affirmation of His place at the throne of God.  By His crucifixion I am shown the awfulness of my own behavior, by comparison to Him as a man, I see my own lack of righteousness.

Filthy rags.

His resurrection is evidence of my eternal bridge, though Christ, to my heavenly Father.  This is a relationship, a personal relationship.  This is Christmas for me.

Don’t be misled.

I remember my Erector sets, and Texaco trucks, bicycles and hockey skates – they brought happiness then and, in memory, they do now.   Likewise Mary and our sons remember and cherish these events too.  I like turkey and ham, cakes and pies and family and those other things that happen around the celebrations in our house.

I enjoy the festivity of the season.  I like gifts… both to give and receive them. I am pleased for the retailers and the way that Christmas sales help balance their books, create jobs and economic growth.  I enjoy the cold weather and the trees and the lights.

But all of this is dull in comparison to the one shining memory that guides me every day of my life and that is simply this:  I serve a risen Savior, born of a virgin to redeem me in my weakness and cleanse me of my sin. It is so very sharp and clear to me, and so crystalline.

If I allow myself to be childlike every day is Christmas.

Childlike for The Child.

The prophet Isaiah predicted it in Chapter 7 verse 14.  Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

None of it loses its luster with time.

Photo Credit: The First Christmas Tree

Higher Education in America – Struggling

American universities are struggling. Rethinking purpose, attention to mission, and refreshed understanding of value are required.   Ten forces at work on higher education will be addressed in the coming months.

One – A foolish man builds his house on a foundation of sand. Likewise, many U.S. universities, public and private, are built on a faulty financial footing. Nearly 50% of U.S. universities are in danger of insolvency without dramatic changes to how they view themselves, who they see as students, and what their mission is.

Two – All universities are different. But, institutions must be careful when measuring themselves against one another.  Apples to apples comparisons are the only sensible type.  Campus leaders at regional or baccalaureate or masters institutions typically blur the distinctions between their institution and elite private and flagship public doctoral degree granting universities.  Diminishing differences undermines efficacy, reduces clarity, and misrepresents reality to students and families.

Three – Like ants, students should work hard, study, and accept responsibility for results of effort: too many are not prepared . While this is true regarding their abilities for critical thinking, basic mathematical functions, and reading comprehension these absences are not the real problem. Inability to accept responsibility rots the core of inquiry and learning.  The state and contemporary family life, or its lack, trains students to be view themselves as victims with no locus of control.

Four – Our eyes should look forward, and be on task: Focus is essential.  Over the past four decades faculty have begun to believe that research and scholarly activity are more important than teaching.  Graduate assistants and non-tenure-track faculty may be excellent teachers, but they have a tenuous relationship to the institution by definition, and are paid like janitors, and in the best instances, plumbers. Tolerating this equates teaching to caring for dirty floors or fixing leaking pipes. This is not a diminishment of janitor or plumber who knows their craft.  It is a sin of leaders and faculty who don’t.

Five – The true character of each individual’s work will become manifest. Second rate research used to quantify faculty productivity has little impact on the quality of educational offerings. Such circumstances occur at the best public and private universities and at local colleges and universities without a strong reputation for research. However these lack-of-quality-storms are more easily weathered at a place like MIT or Michigan because so much excellent work is produced there.

Six – All should speak the truth for we owe that to one and other in spite of political and university leadership relentlessly peddling the idea that any university degree has value. It is clear by the levels of unemployment and student debt not all degrees have marketplace value. Until 40 years ago this was not the case:  All degrees did have market value.

Seven – Too frequently leaders turn towards personal gain, taking bribes and perverting justice. Patronage, especially at public universities, has become rampant. In some cases this patronage is political and partisan leading to political correctness. The essence of universities and their effectiveness in educating students is undermined.

Eight – The welfare of the city that hosts a campus is married to institutional welfare. Universities are becoming “go to” economic development agents based on the number of people hired. Shortsighted academic standards based on the question of “How many jobs will this decision create or cost,” are not standards.   Academically excellent programs create jobs, and nothing else.

Nine – Administrative and bureaucratic operatives at universities have grown at rates equal to the cost increases experienced by students and families. Rules rather than academic purpose govern too many institutions.  Bureaucratic brigades publish reports to prove the value of a university’s work.  The abilities of students to think, act, and exercise skill are the only true measure of university effectiveness. The marketplace will always decide whether or not institutions are effective.

Ten – Human nature is human nature to be sure, but Students of the 21st century are not students of the 20th century.  Seventeenth century educational models don’t work on twenty-first century students.

Universities are failing our nation, its students, and their families. Ineffective institutions public and private should be subject to the force of the marketplace, and not on statehouse life-support.

Cornell University – Image Credit:


The University and the Economy

internet cafe

Universities impact regional economies. In rural areas where economic diversity is scant, the impact is greatest.  Economic growth follows four forces.

A Labor Force

Universities require workers of every stripe, and the jobs needed are one aspect of economic development. However, this does not distinguish between a university and a grocery store.  While missions may differ, both produce jobs simply because in order to achieve their mission workers are required. According to the Fourth Economy,” colleges and universities have added 341,000 new jobs nationally in the past decade despite contracting college enrollments.  If this phenomenon results from genuine need to accomplish mission, it is positive.  However, if it driven by political manipulation and patronage it is a double whammy, driving up costs and diminishing institutional effectiveness.

Some regions have high numbers of students per employee. The state of Wyoming posts an impossible to believe ratio of 250 students per employee. Washington D.C., by comparison, provides only 3.4 students per employee.  Differences are so drastic reason is defied.  However, even with flawed data the inextricable relationship between the needs of students and the numbers of employees required to satisfy those needs contributes to labor force development and regional economic growth.

Forceful New Ideas

Economic contributions by universities are realized through the generation and innovation of new ideas creating enterprise associated with the knowledge work of research and scholarship.  Good students and faculty power the process.  Over the past few decades the idea of the Market University has become a staple in Statehouse discussions regarding the value of public research universities.

In North Carolina, prior to 1962, its universities were largely local, focused on tradition, and not future oriented.  The Research Triangle Park, the nation’s first such enterprise, was established to increase the economic impact of the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke. Terry Stanford president of Duke, and William Friday president of the UNC system, built a powerhouse that attracted Nobel Prize winners and an array of industries for the partnership and vision of universities and the business community. These big ideas helped create economic activity and reversed a brain drain that plagued North Carolina for a generation.

An Educated Workforce  

In Southeast Michigan, The City Observatory, reported the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree decreased as the Detroit metropolitan area economic growth fizzled. More degree holders, produced locally, will not necessarily create economic growth.  But, economic growth without a capable workforce is very difficult, maybe impossible, to achieve. Detroit is working with regional colleges and universities to increase the number of graduates as a means to influence economic development in Motown’s recovery from crime, mismanagement and bankruptcy. Detroit was a bright light, a charter member of the Arsenal of Democracy during World War Two and home to U.S. automobile manufacturing, and the genius and productivity that came with it. To recover, a capable workforce is essential, even in our internet flattened and shrinking world.

In Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, held a series of meetings in Rockford, the Quad Cities, and Peoria as part of an effort dubbed “partnering for Illinois economic future” effort. The marriage of manufacturer economic development groups, universities, and community colleges is generating ideas and insights that couple higher education with working economies.

The Force of Teamwork

University groups recognize economic engagement as an important part of campus life. Economic growth is teamwork driven.  The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness and Economic Prosperity identified a number of institutions this year for their contribution to innovation and economic development in their home locales. Proudly, SIU Carbondale, my home institution, was one of 18 recognized.  Other excellent Midwestern universities achieved the designation this year including the University of Kansas, the University of Louisville, and Ohio University, and the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

The four forces of economic development create and sustain growth and productivity.   In every instance, from the Silicon Valley in California to Route 128 America’s Technology Highway in Massachusetts, the most powerful and lasting growth comes when universities and enterprises that share both geography and purpose work in tandem.

Universities make profound contributions when guided by academic excellence in service to students.  When they serve other interests they falter.  All else, especially economic results, follows up or down.