April 15, 2010

Toward A Common Education

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The central goal of the recently released Strategic Plan for Cornell is improving the educational experience. The first objective in this goal is the ambitious plan to “provide a more unified and shared educational experience for Cornell undergraduates.” Such an effort coordinated across seven colleges represents a challenge, but one worthy of the administration’s full attention. If implemented properly, a more unified curriculum could unite an incredibly diverse student population around a shared, high-quality educational experience while also increasing the heft of a Cornell degree.

Any plan to strengthen Cornell’s common curriculum needs to ensure rigor without sacrificing the breadth of choices unique to this University. An ideal approach would involve developing a small set of unique, rigorous courses within each requirement. In addition, a proper approach would throw away superficial survey courses in favor of in-depth, accessible introductions to the fields of singularly talented professors who are passionate about their research. For instance, to satisfy a science requirement, students could choose between a traditional biology course or a non-traditional, in-depth course within an all-star department like entomology, but not a class designed to appease lack of interest and motivation.

To truly improve the educational experience at Cornell, administrators cannot allow any compromised metrics for success. It might be convenient for a focus group of professors to decide that a course like Introductory Finance counts as a mathematical experience, or that a freshman writing seminar qualifies as immersion in the field of literature. But by setting the bar this low, the University would fail to achieve any measurable improvement in standards.

A handful of singularly impressive courses within each requirement, taught by passionate and engaged faculty, would simultaneously improve the quality of a Cornell education and also ease financial strain on the University. This consolidation of the educational experience would free resources within the departments. It could also allow more professors, freed from Cornell’s bloated list of survey courses for non-majors, to experiment with new courses or focus efforts on upper-level course work.

These common courses will also have a salutary effect on campus cohesion. Mandating that every Cornell student take certain classes will undoubtedly foster a sense of a common project. Furthermore, it would almost guarantee topics of conversation for underclassmen beyond major choices and hometowns. These core courses would be a good way of forcing the student body to come together in common intellectual endeavor

The Strategic Plan was correct to assert the importance of a unified educational experience. We believe that in setting high common standards for academic inquiry, a set of common core classes would achieve this objective. We hope the administration takes notice.