Nov. 1, 2011

Useless to the Core

The College Admissions website tells visitors that the Core will help students “raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society.” To a large extent, this description is accurate—especially when it comes to Hum, Sosc, and Civ. However, in other areas, like the physical and biological sciences, the Core falls short of its lofty mission and goals.

The elephant in the room when it comes to the Core is the biological sciences component. Simply put, Core Bio sucks. It suffers from a lack of focus, which results in a course that covers too much and fails to properly transition into Bio Topics. The lack of focus and depth, when combined with homework assignments that border on the “busywork” that many students hoped they had left behind in high school, has a predictable consequence: Those who take Core Bio end up disliking the biological sciences and are driven away from them. It’s conceivable that a student can enter the College planning to study a science and have her Hum class shift her towards philosophy, but it is almost impossible to think of a scenario where Core Bio motivates someone to major in biology.

In general, the architects of the Core have a real problem on their hands when it comes to the science requirements. It is hard to deny that Hum, Sosc, and Civ are successful in their goals of introducing undergraduates to a wide variety of methodologies and texts, all while cultivating important interpretive, analytical, and writing skills. Students who leave these discussion-based courses often have a newfound respect for the fields that they were exposed to. Unfortunately, similar claims cannot always be made for lecture-based classes like Core Bio, Global Warming, or Chemistry and the Atmosphere.

Sadly, there isn’t an easy way to address this problem—nobody is advocating for the elimination of the science requirement. A more plausible solution would be the introduction of more focused, text-based classes. Courses that explore the teachings of Darwin’s The Origin of Species or Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory could instill the fundamental tenets of scientific thought while retaining academic legitimacy. Other options could be classes that center on the history of science, as well as offerings on specific, overarching concepts like natural selection, thermodynamics, and genetics. These are solutions that would eliminate the “blow-off” reputation of most Core science classes while still limiting their scope to the essential aspects of scientific theory.

Some might argue that this would dilute the teaching of technical knowledge. While this trade-off might be inevitable, it’s also true that adhering to a more conceptual and focused curriculum would inspire more students to pursue said technical knowledge. At the end of the day, there just isn’t a good reason for why the teachings of Plato and Marx are considered required knowledge for all students while those of Farraday and Heisenberg are only available to a small minority of math and science majors. If the Core’s mission really is to introduce students to the ideas that shape our society, then surely fields like physics, chemistry, and biology deserve better than what they currently get.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.