EDITORIALS

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May 15, 2009

Examining the Core: The sciences

While a balanced diet may be critical to a healthy lifestyle, it hardly warrants a place next to Self, Culture And Society as a pillar of a University of Chicago education.

This is part one in a three-part examination of the state of the Core.

In explaining the Core Curriculum on its admissions web site, the College makes no attempt to hide its grand ambitions. “We require courses in physical sciences and biological sciences so that students understand both the power and limitations of scientific observations and experiments.” The current science curriculum, however, falls well short of delivering that promise. For example, the metabolism sequence, an alternative to Core Bio, requires students to keep a diet log, and to run on a treadmill while measuring their oxygen intake. While a balanced diet may be critical to a healthy lifestyle, it hardly warrants a place next to Self, Culture And Society as a pillar of a University of Chicago education. Both classes—Metabolism and Exercise, and Metabolism and Nutrition—offer practical guidance but little in the way of critical, foundational theory.

The problems with the science requirements are myriad. Many courses, especially the numerous lecture-based offerings, feature little to stimulate students other than often tedious PowerPoint presentations and even more tedious busy work assignments. Attendance is sporadic. In the case of Core Bio, the class is little more than an expanded version of what most students learned in high school.

What Core sciences classes lack most of all is a larger foundation. In contrast with Hum and Sosc classes, which provide students with a clear framework that informs the way they think throughout their time in Hyde Park and beyond, science classes almost uniformly fail to deliver. Not all Core science classes are bad, though, and many of the courses that might not be fitting for the Core (like Astrophysics or Global Warming) could be dealt with more seriously and rigorously as electives.

As it stands, Core science courses are mired in the unfortunate general education middle ground between rigor and nonexistence. Many students leave such courses feeling like they wasted a course slot, as well as tuition dollars. The solution is either to make the classes tougher and more scientific—which would be in line with the ideal of the Core—or scrap them altogether.

On its face, neither option is particularly appealing. How can we remain proud of the Core’s supposed rigor if it lacks even a basic science requirement? And after slashing the number of required courses 10 years ago with an eye toward improving student life, how can the administration return to a more rigorous Core?

The true affront to the Core is a set of science courses that often fail to achieve the curriculum’s goal. It’s time for the College to re-evaluate its prized Core once more, and either thoroughly revamp, or scrap entirely, its science requirements.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.