What’s wrong with the Core?

By Ryan McCarl

The Core curriculum is at the center of student identity at the University of Chicago. It was one of the reasons I first developed an interest in coming here: The admissions literature thoroughly convinced me of the utility of the Coreand the promise of a liberal education.

Today, however, I am a Core skeptic. In my eyes, it is less a path to becoming a roundly educated Renaissance Man and more an obstacle that prevents me from taking more courses that interest me and would inspire me to work hard.

If a poll were taken to gauge student attitudes about the Core, I suspect that many would support the Core in theory but oppose their art/music requirement or their Core Bio writing seminar in practice. I myself still believe in a liberal education, but I have become very disenchanted with the Core as it currently exists.

Rather than reflexively defending the Core against those who would change or weaken its requirements, students and administrators should examine each of the requirements one by one to ensure that it is actually furthering our institutional goals.

Is the swimming requirement defensible or merely absurd? Does the physical education requirement have any effect on the propensity of students to exercise after they complete the requirement? Does requiring a random course in art, music, or a foreign language really increase the appreciation of these things for a student not inclined to study them in the first place?

A recent Maroon editorial suggested that President Zimmer strengthen the lax science requirements, taking the supposedly better math requirements as a model. But it forgot to note that calculus is not actually required. Students can skate past the math requirement by taking Statistics 200, one of the most infamously easy classes on campus. If Statistics 200 isn’t your bag, you can also fulfill the requirement with number theory or computer programming.

Perhaps myself and other non-science majors would benefit from having to take a more rigorous sequence of science classes, but it is difficult to understand why. The Maroon pointed to the numerous and impressive achievements of U of C scientists, but I fail to see how torturing me and my GPA with a year of rigorous biology or physics will advance the cause of science or improve my own appreciation for it.

On the other hand, it is also very difficult to understand how taking a basic non-calculus math course and a grab bag of science classes on things like nutrition, the Ice Age, and animal locomotion makes me more enlightened than the “man on the street” or gives me a good value for my exorbitant tuition payments.

This same logic can be applied to almost every requirement of the Core. A good thought exercise is to imagine a Core curriculum in which a student completes exactly the minimum requirement in every area and to ask whether that student is better served by taking these individual classes or by replacing them with classes in his or her major.

Talking about the importance of liberal education and well roundedness in general is inappropriate to a discussion of the Core curriculum, because such musings only make sense if the requirements actually facilitate those goals. As the Core currently stands, they requirements do not. The debate about the Core’s future should be about the minimum individual classes required to pass a given requirement. The Core is only as good as these classes, whatever the intentions of its architects.