Core curriculum may bore, but don’t discount its value

Eric Nikolaides

I have a love-hate relationship with UT’s core curriculum requirements. On the one hand, I’ve learned a lot in all of those classes that I never thought a government major would have to take.  At the very least, when I finally find myself in one of those mythical, real-world adult social situations, hopefully I can come across as well-rounded and educated when I quip about the life cycle of stars or offer insight into the process of language acquisition. But on the other hand, I am a graduating senior and I still haven’t taken English 316K — the dreaded literature requirement. 

Granted, very few graduating seniors would look forward to having to take a freshman class. But the decision to put off that English requirement for so many semesters points to a broader problem: Many students fail to see the value in the core curriculum requirements at UT. In fact, a poll conducted by the Senate of College Councils in 2012 revealed that 77 percent of students think that it is either only slightly important or not important at all to take core curriculum courses on campus instead of testing out or taking them elsewhere. And it’s easy to understand why. College students during their first semester are finally cut free from the limitations of high school curriculums and, for the first time, they can take classes about whatever their interests are. As a result, the problem is particularly serious for students with majors in the College of Natural Sciences who just don’t want to take those pesky humanities classes anymore. According to that same survey, 81 percent of CNS students think that American history courses are either only slightly important or not important at all. For American government, it’s 78 percent, 67 percent for English and 80 percent for visual and performing arts.

But maybe it’s just that UT students aren’t quite ready to understand the value of these classes yet. According to Penne Restad, who teaches core curriculum survey courses in American history, it can be hard for students who are still in school to engage in the courses that aren’t directly relevant to them. “The engagement will show up later on,” she explained. To Restad, graduating seniors have so much on their minds — from paying back student loans to finding a job and a place in the world — that it can be hard to appreciate why, as an engineering student, you would have to take an English class. 

Restad conceded that faculty could probably do more to break it down for students and explain to them exactly why these courses matter.

Brent Iverson, the dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, had a slightly different take on why the core curriculum matters. “There’s a lot of talk these days about the return of investment for an undergraduate education,” Iverson said. And according to how a student pursues his or her education, that student will get different things out of it. “Some students might have the idea that the easiest thing to do is look for the path of least resistance,” he continued. “But when you get out and start looking for jobs, you realize that it’s all the different things that you’ve learned that help you define which path you’re going to take.” To Iverson, these classes help students figure out exactly what they will become, and for that, they are invaluable.  “When you look at it that way,” Iverson concluded, “the goal would be to see how much you can take … and how you can enrich yourself to the maximum possible.” According to Iverson, this essentially becomes a value question: Are you getting the most enrichment out of your tuition dollars?

The trickiest part of this question of core curriculum engagement, however, is figuring out where the responsibility lies.  Is it up to us, as students, to find some sort of rationale for engaging in a course that seems like it doesn’t matter? Or is it up to the faculty to make their courses seem relevant and to push their students in the right direction?  Interestingly, the same survey that showed how few students valued taking core curriculum courses at UT also showed that 75 percent of students thought that the courses they’ve already taken at UT — in striking contrast to the survey results for classes they haven’t taken — did add some value to their education. So maybe the instructors of these courses are doing something right.

Perhaps, then, there is nothing that we can do. The best solution to this problem might just be to bite the bullet when we’re in these classes, trust that there is a good reason for the core curriculum, and take solace in the fact that we’ll be able to appreciate its value later.

Nikolaides is a government and Spanish senior from Cincinnati.