Take Two #95: What's at the Core of Core Education?

By Kyra-lin Hom

TIME Magazine's most recent issue (October 7, 2013) sports a rather creepy cover of three children wearing black college caps and gowns with the headline “Class of 2025: How they'll learn and what they'll pay” by Jon Meacham. The concern is over not just what undergraduate students are learning but if they're learning at all. Especially with tuition prices skyrocketing into mortgage territory, parents, employers, educators, economists, politicians – pretty much everyone is understandably worried we're falling behind our international competitors.

For years we've been hearing how China, India and Japan are outstripping the US in number of graduates with degrees in the essential modern sciences. And this doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. Ignoring how China and India vastly outmatch us in numbers period, the main difference between our competitors' education systems and ours is intention. These are countries that pick out their best and brightest and embed them in science and technology starting in middle school. Us stateside, on the other hand, are lucky if we know our majors by sophomore year of college.

I'm grateful that I had the ability to explore and change my mind. I had no idea what I was getting myself into before college – not that I figured it out during either... Since graduating I've sharply switched career directions. My case isn't a rare one either. It's downright common nowadays for college grads to hit a brick wall post-college and spin off in an entirely new direction. It's quite a different story from the foreign one. Like I said, intention.

Is it a good thing that we've been given time to explore ourselves? Or is it just plain wishy-washy and indulgent? That depends on what colleges are supposed to do. Meacham breaks this down into two questions: “What should every college graduate know?” and what should they “know how to do?”

The first implies there is some all encompassing body of knowledge that every college graduate should know and be able to discuss. Technically this mythical corpora is covered by the liberal arts core curriculum. But let's be honest, even if anyone could agree on what is the whole and total core of any education, how likely is it that a few classes could cover it? Besides, shouldn't most of this have been covered in high school?

Most college core requirements don't include 'life skills' either – those basics that so many employers are claiming my generation lacks. I rarely see anything in there touching on modern government or basic investing/accounting. Those life skills were tossed overboard in lieu of a rehash of Locke and Rousseau. As important as the founders of western thought and philosophy are, I don't think Plato and his cave are going to help me file my taxes.

Meacham's second question, “What should every college graduate know how to do?” implies a directed field of study and the learning of a directly applicable skill set. This is supposed to be covered by a student's major-specific classes. That kind of happens. For example. I was a double major in Screenwriting and Pacific Asian Studies. Screenwriting is a very specific skill. After these very pointed classes, I felt confident in my ability to write a decent script. Yet after the same number of Pacific Asian Studies classes all I'd learned was how to be a better Asian.

What is college supposed to be? A crockpot of culture and humanities, turning us uncouth ruffians into sophisticated magnates? Or a skill mill, churning out the workers of tomorrow? Right now the consensus is neither, hitting somewhere in the middle and falling short of both.

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