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Teaching the Tide By Dianne Perkins. Illustrations by Michael HawthorneGo Back to the Table of Contents
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“ If the university is not the temple of the intellect, then it is not a university. In the temple, as its servants know, there are no students’ rights, except the right to be well taught.”

--Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers

The Capsize of Core Curricula Programs:
Leaks in the Instructional Ship

Higher education’s hottest debates of the past two decades have hinged upon the Canon: what tradition’s texts should dominate an undergraduate curriculum and what courses, if any, should be mandated to assure students some semblance of a liberal education before they proceed to the vocational demands of their Majors. Yet given the declining status--and standard--of undergraduate teaching in America, such debates have cast the cart before the horse. For even universities conscientious enough to adopt a Core Curriculum tend to staff it by the dictates of economic expedience--not the attempt to secure distinguished, or even competent, teaching.

The very courses through which every future statesman must pass; the very courses that lay the ground for literate citizenship (composition, critical thinking, some survey of intellectual traditions); the very courses that curriculum committees have deemed essential to further study--the very courses, in short, that introduce students to the American university--are staffed in a cursory, even cynical, fashion.

The results, I will argue, are a failure to solicit students’ respect for higher education at the critical juncture that it must--their Freshmen and Sophomore years; a failure to engage our students’ highest capacities by furnishing a challenging intellectual rite of passage; attitrition rates that reflect undergraduates’ just and growing disillusion with “the college experience”; and the growing failure, across the nation, to produce even literate college graduates.

The wake of such results renders the stormy curricular debates of the past two decades bloated and premature. Whose texts will be taught--what cultural canon will dominate the undergraduate curriculum--is a secondary question if universities fail to place before their Freshmen and Sophomores instructors who can teach--or care to teach--introductory liberal arts courses at all.

Who are generally hired to teach Core courses? Except at small private colleges that lack graduate programs, two criteria prevail: those who are cheap--and those who are least qualified, contextually, to do a good job. There are, gloomily, few exceptions to this rule. The rare enlightened senior professor who recognizes the importance of Core courses volunteers to teach one a year--and does a superb job. And tenure-track faculty, although a dwindling constituency, are under pressure to perform in the single Core course assigned each semester. But most American undergraduates are entrusted, during their Freshmen and Sophomore years, to instructors scavenged from one of three tainted pools.

Nervous young graduate assistants offer enthusiasm--and sometimes a genuine talent for teaching. But their inexperience in the classroom and pressure to retain their financial grants encourage them to inflate grades--lest disgruntled students, unintimidated by young instructors, charge the Chairman’s office with complaints. The disastrous result--visible to anyone who teaches at the Sophomore level--are thousands of students who, however competent the Director of Freshman Composition, “passed” the course unable to command a sentence, let alone a paragraph. A more productive place for grad assistants to acquire their teaching experience is the historical “Survey” course--not a course so critical to students’ fundamental skills, and to their initial perception of the university, as Composition. That Composition is, as I will later show, more pedagogically demanding--and far more time-consuming--than any other undergraduate course is precisely the reason it is farmed out to vulnerable young grad assistants, whose enthusiasm for teaching will mask, for a while, the conditions of their own, and their Freshmen’s, exploitation.


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