Surrounding the core

Core classes should better complement the major and elective classes that students take.

By Maya Fraser

At the end of the summer I sat down to dinner with my grandmother and a group of four of her friends who had graduated from the University of Chicago. Despite being the youngest person at the table by more than fifty years, I found myself engrossed in the conversation. The “Chicago group” was a diverse set of persons who had all gone on to interesting careers after leaving the University, from working for the Foreign Service to playing concert piano professionally.

But most of the talk was about Chicago. They told me about the courses they had taken and the dorms in which they had lived, leading to the discovery that one of the men had lived in the same Burton-Judson house as I had. They also asked me questions about my own coursework, the authors I had read, and which Core sequences still existed.

It became apparent that although they went to the same university that I do now, the educations they received were a completely different animal than mine.  We like to think of the University of Chicago education as part of a tradition that stretches back for many decades. In truth, the nature of that education has changed quite a bit. My grandmother’s friends had been at Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, at the tail end of Robert Maynard Hutchins’s era as President and then Chancellor.  In those days one couldn’t major in anything until the Masters level; the undergraduate education consisted entirely of Core-like classes.

This realization led me to think about what elements of my education have been successful, and which have failed. Am I missing out by having an education less focused on the great books, one that has left me without much knowledge of Roman history or any of the many things that educated people were once supposed to know? Or have I benefited from having more time in my major and more options in completing my general education requirements?

In some ways I have and in other ways I have not. Our Core today lacks both the cohesiveness and commonality that it had 60 years ago. It only gives students a set of common knowledge insomuch as that everyone reads Plato and Marx at some point in their time here, and it may be possible to even get out of that if classes are carefully selected.

That being said, most social science, humanities, and civilizations classes today still seem to teach their material well and engage students. Even if they have changed to reflect the wishes of students today, the College seems dedicated to making sure that they are small, high-quality classes. (This is not true of the science Core, but that is another issue and one that has already been written about.) Having a smaller Core also allows for more time to be spent in one’s major or learning skills for the job market, which is increasingly important in today’s economy.

My ultimate conclusion is that I am losing out in my education not in the Core, but in major classes. As I have gotten older and taken mostly major classes I realize that I learned so much more in many of my Core classes than I am learning in my classes now.  This is surprising, since Sociology seems like a great field for tackling big questions along the lines of those discussed in the Core.  What does it mean for an individual to live embedded within a society? How does the society affect the individual and how does the individual affect society? Unfortunately, many of my classes don’t seem to engage the mind in the same way that the Core did.

This is because the College often does not apply the same teaching philosophy to major classes that it does to the Core. In the Core, classes are small and discussion-based. They are supposed to be based on the Socratic method, with an instructor there to give guidance, explain difficulties in the reading, and ultimately participate with the students in a collective learning experience. That is the goal at the very least. These are the classes that are supposed to be the hallmark of a Chicago education.

In the major, though, things are different. For Sociology, all of the required courses are relatively large lectures (40+), as are many of the electives.  Even an excellent professor cannot engage 50 students as well as she could engage 19. Having taken a large course and a small course with the same professor, this difference was especially apparent. One was a class that was interesting, but did not have a large impact on my thinking. The other was a class that forced me to think profoundly about methodology and what we can actually learn from practicing sociology.

The Chicago education would be improved if the College extended the pedagogical philosophy of the Core beyond it. Decreasing class sizes would help, but even more, the College should begin to think of those classes as a continuation of what was begun in the Core, not just something that comes after. We may no longer have an education that is similar in content to that experienced by my grandmother’s friends, but we should at least have one that follows a similar spirit, regardless of the specific material taught.

Maya Fraser is a fourth-year in the College majoring in sociology.