Students need 20.00 credits, or as many as 40 courses, to graduate from the University of Guelph with an Undergraduate (Honours) degree.
Yet should a student choose to major in History, for example, the undergraduate course calendar obliges them to take just five mandatory ‘core’ courses. Put differently, 87 per cent of their cumulative course load is optional, notwithstanding a few ‘select-one-of’ and ‘take-the-following-amount-of-X-level’ limitations.
University departments, particularly in the arts and social sciences, are doing a disservice to their students by allowing for so much choice, and as such, coordinating a more structured and comprehensive core curriculum should be a priority for this university. Already, many other post-secondary institutions have realized that it is insufficient to let students direct the course of their own education. Students, left to their own devices, will dabble in a little bit of everything, while not learning much of anything at all.
While an education that covers a broad range of subjects is important, so too is structure: To get the best of both worlds, the University of Guelph should develop a strong core curriculum that includes many courses from many subjects, arranged within a system that allows for the material from one course to build upon the next in a fluid manner.
This ‘core’ should be mandatory for all undergraduate students, and all departments should adapt the principle of limiting choice for the sake of fluency so that by the time students reach their final year, they can be reasonably confident they have received a well-tuned education. All too often do upper-year students flounder and become dejected upon realizing that their education has been directionless and unsatisfactory.
Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor and interdisciplinary-studies expert, calls the existing system a “the duck, duck, goose model.”
“We’re great at giving people dribs and drabs of a little bit of everything; we’re terrible at showing students how they’re connected,” she said to the Globe and Mail. “If you learn a little programming and a little calculus, what does that have to do with [a] little ancient Greek?”
Those subjects might have a lot to do with one another, but those connections are more quickly appreciated when they are taught in a classroom. Teaching students to understand those connections is exactly the purpose of a highly prescriptive core curriculum.
A core curriculum would be representative of what the university feels every student needs to know, and every institution would be able to distinguish itself by the unique qualities of its core. Guelph, for instance, might choose to focus on international development and the biological sciences.
The U of G’s Bachelor’s of Arts and Sciences program might be a start in the right direction, in the sense that it is an attempt at a comprehensive education, but it too falls victim to the appeal of giving students excessive choice. A better path to follow would be the “Great Books Programs” offered by universities across the United Sates, including the University of Chicago, and in Canada by the University of King’s College.
Complicating matters is the fact that, right now, universities are under tremendous pressure to churn out students with specialized skills, ready for the ‘real world.’ A universal core curriculum appears to be at odds with that mandate, and so combined university-college programs are proving to be an attractive alternative. These combined programs let students divide their time between learning hands-on skills and studying theory.
But it is yet unclear if specialization is really what employers are looking for. Businesses frequently bemoan the fact that recently graduated employees lack vital, general skills. Increased specialization does not help remedy that problem, and nor does it satisfy those students who are determined to pursue a degree in the arts or the humanities, irrespective of the economic climate.
Students, if they can relate to what is described above, should make their dissatisfaction be heard in the classroom. For in the end, while a lack of specialization can be remedied down the road, a desultory and ill-spent university career cannot be so easily shrugged off.