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Core Curriculum and Quality Education: A Conversation Stephen ZelnickGo Back to Table of Contents
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ellipses: Why?

Zelnick: There’s an insularity within the Academic culture itself, despite all its claims of cosmopolitan universality. The resolution to that lies in the conundrum of `Who is going to educate the educator?’ Even the more advanced faculty have not caught up with the new shaping of the world sufficiently to represent this New World in what they teach.

ellipses: Does the domestic popular culture make it difficult for students to think seriously about classic themes?

Zelnick: I’ve always been a big fan of popular culture. I was a good lower middle-class American boy, grew up with Rock’n’Roll and the flash of fashion, and I think there is something exhilarating about all of that--and there have been moments when popular culture carried extraordinary values. Even in the most vulgar expressions of popular culture today, there are good, strong truths being told. I use popular culture to the extent I am in touch with it anymore. However, I’m not sure there is a popular culture young people share. Many students that show up in my classes don’t seem to have that cohesion. There seems to be popular subcultures. Still, I think popular culture is a resource and an ally to the discussion.

ellipses: What kind of curriculum would you develop given full freedom?

Zelnick: The curriculum we have at Temple University I would endorse. I think our Core Curriculum is quite extraordinary in embracing information, conception, moral development, skill development, and broader perspectives. It’s just the thing. The Core here includes English, Math, Foreign Language, and Intellectual Heritage. There are courses in the individual and society, American civilization, bench science and public policy in relation to science and technology, courses in the arts, some of them hands on. There’s a new course in race and racism and ethnicity, and one in using the library and new information systems. Having all students go through this year-and-a- half or so of broadening and interconnecting is just what they need. Now, how the curriculum is being delivered is another question entirely.

ellipses: What is “the other question entirely”?

Zelnick: There are not enough well educated, thoughtful enough, mature enough instructors allocated to the effort. Much of the instruction falls on graduate students, and although many are awfully good people, few are mature enough and sufficiently well educated to teach these courses. There is a paradox here. In many ways you have to be much better educated to teach the generalist course than you do to teach the graduate course in specialty.

You really have to know what you’re teaching--and its implication and application--and we are leaving that task to an inappropriate teaching staff due to the politics and economics of the professorate that have gone sour in the last decade. But as curriculum--the curriculum we have is splendid. It leads to major fields of study and graduate style courses. Delivery of the curriculum is a serious problem, and that’s where a battle has to be fought.

ellipses: Say that this kind of Core becomes the hallmark, the standard bearer, of higher education in the next century. Will it continue to satisfy the needs of students in the future?

Zelnick: I think people remain people. They need a sense of moral rootedness; they need a sense of their own effectiveness; they need heroes, codes of value, horizons of expectation and hope in order to make the best of what a human life can be. And young people today are as avid in pursuit of those needs as any generation that has ever lived, and, as I imagine, ever will. We have in place the institutions, the books, the curricula. The question always comes back to whether there is heart for the task. And for me, that is a mixed picture. I see my own life to be involved in that effort to develop heart in instructors and teachers, and increasingly I’m not teaching students; I’m teaching teachers. Among the things I am teaching them is the reality of their situation--what they can accomplish by doing what they do as if it were real and vitally important rather than merely a task assigned to them. Unless there are people who believe this--who step forward and say, ‘Enough!’--who shift the flow of the river through main force, then there will always be trouble in education. We should have a sense of the heroic, a sense of the urgency of challenge and change, and we should have intellectual heroes capable of inspiring us to imagine ourselves so that we can shape our lives. We must be dedicated to do the best we can to pass these traditions on. Education is a dialogue between the generations to that end. There is nothing more powerful that human beings do.

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