Soft core best for Williams community

Whether a core curriculum is seen as an asset or an obstacle depends on how we imagine higher education. If we think of universities as purveyors of educational services – that is, as producers of a product called “courses” that are paid for by student consumers (with a heavy subsidy from the university’s endowment, of course) – then a core curriculum stands in the way of efficient consumption.

After all, any store that required shoppers to purchase one set of items before they bought what they really wanted would fail in short order.

If, on the other hand, we conceive of a college or university as a community, then the picture is different. Communities assign rights and responsibilities. Communities require their members to talk to one another. Conversation is enabled and enhanced by shared understanding. This need for common knowledge, the stuff of community discussion, is the strongest argument for a core curriculum.

My sympathies obviously lie with the community model rather than with the corporate one. Like many faculty members, I am unsettled by the consumerist assumptions that underwrite arguments against a core curricula.

Students have no inherent right of “academic freedom” that allows them to take only those courses that suit them any more than I have an inherent right to teach only courses that appeal to me. Both students and faculty are answerable to the College’s standards of academic structure and rigor, without which a Williams degree would be meaningless.

In his recent book, The University in Ruins, Bill Readings notes that knowledge may be seen “as a conversation among a community rather than as a simple accumulation of facts.” This vision of knowledge liberates us from tiresome debate about the Western canon and its alleged ethnocentrism.

It does not matter whether a core curriculum focuses on certified Great Books, although one hopes that the works chosen for any core courses would have withstood the test of time by virtue of their ambition, artistry or conceptual power. The point is to create a base of shared understanding that shapes and animates debate in classes throughout the College. This cannot be found at Williams today.

The strongest argument against a core curriculum is not ideological but practical: such programs are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain over time.

Graduate training is so specialized that many scholars balk at the prospect of teaching material foreign to them. Core curricula typically struggle to make room for contributions by faculty in the sciences and creative arts. The sheer scale of required courses becomes a dead weight that eventually crushes the interest of students and faculty alike. The challenge, then, is to design an optional core program — a “soft core,” if you will — that is so deft, so engaging, and ultimately so important that no one wants to be left out of the conversation.

James Lambert ’39 Professor Michael Brown is chair of the anthropology/sociology department.

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