January 27, 2018

The Core of the Problem

UChicago pretends that the Core inspires academic excellence, but students rarely take Core classes seriously.

The University is quick to make bold claims about what the famed Core provides: “The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions [about] powerful ideas that shape our society.” Apparently, nobody from the University has ever sat in on a PhySci lecture. 

The problem is, our Core doesn’t truly motivate students to venture outside of their academic comfort zones to actually raise such questions. We can simply opt out of intellectually rigorous courses in favor of known and celebrated blow-off classes. This leads to 9:30 a.m. PhySci lectures where professors are burdened with unmotivated students who expect to do very little work. 

Within almost every Core subject, there are these so-called “blow-offs.” For example, the vast majority of non-science majors take courses in the geosciences category—courses that sound pretty cool, such as Global Warming, Earth as a Planet, and Natural Hazards. Even otherwise-motivated students expect to do no work, if they even bother to show up to these frequently skipped lectures at all. Similarly, students looking to fulfill their Core Bio requirement seek out the professors who assign the least work possible. I’ll never forget the horror on the faces of my fellow Global Warming-ites upon finding out that we would be expected to actually learn information beyond a middle school level. This system is also unfair to professors who spend their time teaching unmotivated humanities majors like myself—time they could spend conducting research, publishing papers, or teaching graduate students who actually care about the subject matter. 

The structure of these classes is similarly lacking. Most PhySci courses do not reward students who are attentive in lectures or those who desire to problem solve. There are no discussion sections where students must contribute knowledge and insight from lectures or readings in order to get a good grade. In my experience, students spend their time ditching class, skimming online lectures before the final, and hastily learning the bare minimum for labs. Some of these courses even have online, open-book finals, hardly in line with the Core’s ambitious ideals. 

The Core is also supposed to force students out of their academic comfort zones. But an example of it failing students in this regard is the SOSC sequence Mind, which is filled almost exclusively with STEM majors. This course mainly focuses on scientific papers and does involve a somewhat more rigorous workload than its PhySci counterparts. Yet it rarely pulls STEM majors out of their field. While the previously mentioned geoscience courses are taken due to expectations of minimal work, a course like Mind allows students to remain in the comfort of their own academic discipline.  

These aren’t supposed to be sweeping statements. I know plenty of pre-meds reading Hobbes, Smith, and Aristotle right now and many humanities majors who find academic meaning in their bio topic courses. Yet, despite these anomalies, the Core still allows too many opportunities for students to slack off. There’s a reason why Core classes are always fully enrolled yet often taught in conspicuously empty lecture halls. 

So how can the University solve this? In terms of science classes, I don’t think getting rid of the courses I’ve mentioned is necessary, as many of them revolve around topics like climate change, which are of interest to non-science majors. But I do think that instructors should find a way to make lectures meaningful. For example, tedious labs could be replaced by discussion sections where students can discuss lectures and possibly relate them to other fields of study. With regard to SOSC or HUMA requirements, STEM-based courses can take a “Philosophy of Science”-based approach (found within the writings of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and David Hume, among many others), instead of one that’s purely dependent on scientific research papers. These courses would be able to attract those interested in STEM without forgoing the interdisciplinary nature that is at the heart of why the Core exists.  

I, like most non-science majors, chose Core classes based around my desire for little work and my need for a GPA boost. Similarly, I’m sure many STEM majors base their Core decisions on a desire to stay in their own lane. But this shouldn’t be the basis of such a vital part of the UChicago experience. To achieve its stated goals, the Core must be restructured so that students can actually get the type of general education that our administration advertises. 

Ashton Hashemipour is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.