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Core Curriculum and Quality Education: A Conversation Stephen ZelnickGo Back to Table of Contents
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Stephen Zelnick, former Director of the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia, contends that this nation’s undergraduate education suffers from a lack of both care and character. As a critic of the current condition of academia, he is a strong voice in a growing chorus of professional educators calling for a reexamination of the values that currently underlie American higher education. Zelnick’s program, at the heart of the Core Curriculum at Temple, instructed students in classic texts, including Thucydides, Plato, The Bible, The Koran, The Sundiata, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare in its first semester; and Locke, the Romantics, Marx, Gandhi, Darwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and contemporary novelists in its second. Great Books programs have been hailed, and damned, by odd bedfellows in the Academy, but Zelnick holds fast to the belief that the heritage of great thinkers in the history of civilization empowers generations to think for themselves. ‘ellipses’ began by questioning Dr. Zelnick about the national success of such rigorous programs as the one at Temple.

Zelnick: I have to refer to a report from the Director of Core Curriculum at my own university who was attending a conference in Seattle. And according to this conference, Core Curriculum Programs have not been working well. It was pointed out that Temple was one of the few fully developed Core programs that is flourishing. And by and large, the report suggests, ventures of this kind have been torn apart by the demands of the professorate that the Core serve its needs, rather than the needs of students. That is, the professorate is willing to endorse a Core if it does not actually put them in the classroom with students at that level. When it comes to getting down in the trenches with students, there’s no payoff, so they leave it behind.

ellipses: Is the multicultural debate detrimental to the Core Curriculum?

Zelnick: It’s not the multiculturalism or diversity debate that is the Core killer. Our Core, for example, attempts to be thoroughly cosmopolitan and represent works from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The problem is the professorate

ellipses: Is the tenure system part of the problem?

Zelnick: The tenure system as a self-perpetuating hierarchy controls the teaching system. At its worst--when it is merely a means of securing faculty positions--it becomes not only elitist, but completely uncaring toward students. The tenure system allows very limited opportunity for new teachers, and in its frequent disregard for student needs, it’s like a species eating its own young. What is truly damaging, however, is the impact on students. Teaching undergraduates in large universities is envisioned as a sign of lower status in the professorial hierarchy; the lower down the totem pole one goes, the more one is required to teach undergraduates. Now the point of Core Curriculum was to get away from that. To elevate the task of teaching and to arrest the overspecialization of research and publishing that has infected academic departments. And to put an end as well to the wholesale exploitation of part-time teachers, and for that matter, students.

ellipses: Why students?

Zelnick: Because students pick up on the fact that those who teach them are not the department big guns, and that is damaging to them, to the society, to the workplace, and finally to the civilization. I think it’s a betrayal. Those sitting at the top of the academic pyramid do not truly believe that anyone, given the options, would want to teach an undergraduate course in the classics; and that I think is frightening, particularly in the Humanities.

ellipses: Has this dis-empowered the Humanities in Academia?

Zelnick: The Humanities have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage. The Humanities ought to have a powerful appeal to the imagination and feelings of people busy constructing their lives--and those are the people who come to universities. Yet somehow the Humanities have become a dry discussion about the intricacies of language and language’s troubled relation to the world. My poor English Department, for example, has turned somehow into a department in semiotics, or anthropology of discourse, or some such damned thing, when they are sitting on top of texts that are explosive in aiding young adults to grasp some version of themselves, and of the world they live in, that can reverberate in students’ imagination for the rest of their lives. It may just be the case in our advanced stage of knowledge that we have turned away from what is packed into the most powerful of literary works. In teaching, perhaps professors should suppress some of their more elaborate critical concerns and drag themselves down onto the shop floor, where young people are busy fashioning their own identity as well as a new vision of the world in which they live. Our youngsters need to look at works that for some professors may seem overly romantic and surpassed by more canny views of life. We need to put Romantic works in front of our students, however, because that is where students are in life. They should read Bronte, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. These are works that continue to have power in the task of shaping and imagining the self. So, perhaps the professorate should set aside some of our more elaborate critical projects by which we prove to one another just how smart we are. There’s a better use for these texts than critical fodder. We have to step back and teach texts on their own level and within their own sets of concerns.

ellipses: So you tend to think that texts are taught with more emphasis on criticism and specialization than on their relationship to an individual’s engagement with life?

Zelnick: Well, that is what makes academia so frightening and so treacherous to its own best traditions.

ellipses: And that many academics are out of touch with students’ needs?


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