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Examining the new core

By Jonathan Meilaender

Just over a year ago, Saint Vincent began the process of revising its core curriculum. At the time, I wrote an article in this paper explaining some of the changes I hoped to see. In particular, I suggested a much smaller core; SVC’s previous (and current) core, as you know, consists of 60 credits.

The core revision process has been obscured by the turmoil of coronavirus and national politics, but it is now almost complete. A core proposal is available on the portal, and the members of the committee to administer that new core have been chosen. In late January, Dr. Jason King was elected as the first “Director of Core,” a job that will guide the implementation of the new standards over the course of the coming years.

In my opinion, the new core represents a significant improvement over the old system, but I still see certain weaknesses. In order to evaluate both weakness and improvement, we must begin with a brief consideration of the purpose of a university and, by extension, the purpose of a core curriculum. Most universities seek to balance two roles: providing a general education and providing job preparation in a specific area. The former task is often identified with a “liberal arts” education. “Liber” means free, so a liberal arts education is the kind of education suitable for a free person. In modern terms, it’s the kind of education necessary for productive participation in a democracy. It usually involves a basic knowledge of ethics, philosophy, politics, applied science, writing, and speaking. The main point of a core curriculum is (usually) to supply this knowledge.

Of course, productive participation in a democracy is only possible with specialized, practical knowledge; a liberal arts background is mostly theoretical, but a good job enables us to transform that theoretical knowledge into practical benefit. Consequently, the second goal of a good education is to provide preparation for work (or additional study) in a specialized field.

This balance means that a university core should be neither too large, because then the second goal fails, nor too small, because then the first is impossible. The right way to select this balance depends, partly, on the nature of a university’s student body. If students come to college with a broad and diversified education and very good prior academic credentials, a large core can be burdensome because they already have the general knowledge they need. Other students may have less extensive prior schooling, and they may prefer to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. These students won’t have any other opportunity to obtain a liberal arts background. Saint Vincent attracts many local students who’ve attended public schools, plan to enter the workforce at once, and don’t select liberal arts majors. Consequently, a large core may be justified.

Still, the old core suffered from three main problems, the first of which was its size and lack of flexibility. At 60 or 61 credits, it was enormous. A brief perusal of our peer colleges (linked on the portal) confirms this reality. Almost half the credits necessary to graduate at SVC were in the core.

Second, it was incoherent, with no logical connection between requirements. A student could fulfill the core while taking hardly any liberal arts courses at all. And no one knew the purpose of the First-Year Seminar.

Third, it was very difficult to tailor the requirements to a student’s skill level. A student with a good knowledge of writing still had to sit through language and rhetoric, for example (unless you transferred in AP credits, but that isn’t an option for many students).

So let’s take a look at how the new core works, and see whether it fixes these issues. The new core is structured around three themes, “Listening,” “Learning,” and “Loving,” with a seminar devoted to each. These seminars are proper seminar courses: i.e., students engage in discussion of some text. They aren’t like the old First-Year Seminar.

The rest of the courses fulfill 6 “Student Learning Outcomes,” or “SLOs.” There are two SLOs for each theme. The point of these SLOs is mostly to make the core easier to “assess” per the requirements of Saint Vincent’s accrediting agency. There are either two or three courses allocated to each SLO, amounting to 15 total courses, or 5 for each theme. That works out to between 45 and 48 credits.

Courses are “approved” for each SLO by a committee. Basically, faculty propose courses that can meet the requirements, and the committee then decides whether they do meet those requirements. For example, say that a history professor wants to teach about the French Revolution; maybe he thinks can fulfill Listening SLO 2. If the committee agrees, students who take that course can count it toward the core.

This may sound horribly complicated, but it isn’t so bad for students. Core courses will be listed as CORE followed by whatever the course number happens to be. The first digit of that number refers to the course level, the second to the SLO covered. That way, students can easily see which courses will count for the core. Still, it won’t be simpler than the old system; students will still need to do some work to ensure they are actually picking the right courses for each requirement.

That minimum of 45 credits is smaller, and thus better, than the old system. In practice, since requirements are now tied to SLOs, not disciplines, it may be even less burdensome. The old core was difficult for many students because so few major courses fulfilled core requirements. In the new system, many students may find that many of their major courses fulfill SLOs. That means that many of their core requirements will be fulfilled by courses they need to take anyway.

So the first problem is fixed: it’s smaller. It’s also more coherent. The approval process for core courses means that you can’t take, say, any random psychology class and any random politics class: instead, only classes that actually match the SLOs count. The courses that count will fit together better. So the second problem is also fixed.

The third problem isn’t fully corrected. There is a bit more wiggle room to accommodate different levels, though. The basic writing course will have different levels. And the first seminar will replace First Theology. Besides, students should be able to select courses more appropriate to their level instead of being rigidly tied to some number of 100, 200, and 300 level courses. Still, students who come to college very well-prepared will likely still find the core burdensome. To some extent, though, this is simply tied to the size of the core; it’s hard to solve this problem without making the core much smaller.

The new core does create at least one new and serious problem: it can be fulfilled without taking any foreign languages. If the whole point of a core is to offer a liberal arts background, foreign languages are absolutely essential; they might even be the most important part of a core. This omission is very convenient, because it’s now easier for Saint Vincent to reduce the size of foreign language departments—a common casualty of budget cuts for small colleges. If anything, the core should increase foreign language requirements by obliging every student to reach the 300-level in a language or else demonstrate prior mastery.

But on balance, though, I think we can call the new core an improvement. It isn’t what I think the ideal core should look like (it exists elsewhere, I may write another column on that), but it will be less burdensome and simultaneously more coherent and useful for most students. I hope the foreign language deficit will be remedied in the future, but, for now, the core committee has done a commendable job.

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