Daniel de Vise
February 5, 2023
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor and a potential Republican presidential prospect, says he wants to mandate a “core curriculum” in public universities as a way to ensure young Floridians are grounded in Western civilization.
To the nation’s higher education leaders, that idea is political kryptonite.
Proponents of the core curriculum say every student should emerge from college with a core of human knowledge: not necessarily Shakespeare and Dante per se, but some sense of civilization’s greatest books and finest ideas.
But college faculties have struggled to decide what a core curriculum should include. Rather than require any specific course, most universities fall back on broad “distribution requirements,” mandating that students take a STEM course here, an arts course there, to explore the academic world beyond their major.
At schools with comparatively lax distribution rules, no one must study any one discipline, let alone take a prescribed course. As a result, students can graduate from Amherst, Brown, Johns Hopkins or UCLA without ever taking a class in science or history or foreign language.
Supporters of core learning say those schools — indeed, most American universities — abdicate their responsibility to make specific choices about what students should learn.
“I think that there are some things that everybody ought to know,” said Roosevelt Montás, senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University. “It’s an idea that academia has largely walked away from, but without, I think, a very good reason.”
From 2008 to 2018, Montás directed the core curriculum at Columbia, founded in 1919, one of a few surviving programs that require all undergraduates to complete a sequence of interdisciplinary courses.