North Hall Society

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Critical Look at the Proposed New Core Curriculum

Note: The following statement was researched and written by faculty in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. It was discussed in several drafts and adopted without opposition (with one member abstaining) at a school meeting of Thursday, October 6, 2005, and presented at a special called assembly of the faculty on Wednesday, October 12, 2005.

The core proposal follows the premise that core hours should be significantly reduced. This is a flawed concept admittedly originally mandated to the core committee by the administration. The concept mentioned last year of a parallel reduction in the hours of the large majors will never happen because it cannot be done given the constraints of professional licensing organizations. Even if it could be done and the students had 30-40 hours of pure electives, one wonders how these unstructured electives would provide them with a better education than a well-thought-out larger core curriculum? The "small core" mandate is in fact a bankrupt attempt to pander to the perceived wishes of students for less rigorous courses with which to fulfill their graduation requirements. Some may even see it as a marketing tool to attract more students. However, schools of excellence have not chosen to go that route. Note the recent list of top schools in U.S. News and World Report. In the comprehensive college category, which is the category that L-R C is in, the top three choices in the south are Berea College in Kentucky, Berry College in Georgia, and Maryville College in Tennessee. Research shows that these schools of acknowledged excellence have the following ratio of core hours to hours required for graduation:

  • Berea College—core requirement is 15 courses out of 33 courses required for graduation.
  • Berry College—core requirement is 53 hours out of 124 hours required for graduation.
  • Maryville College—core requirement is 60 hours for a B.A. degree and 54 hours for a Bachelors of Music degree out of 128 hours required for graduation.
Clearly, the best schools in our region that are labeled "comprehensive" like us, having professional programs and a liberal arts commitment, have NOT chosen to decimate their core curriculums. They are able to attract well-qualified students in good numbers because of their strong liberal arts commitment, not in spite of it.

Now let us look at a comparison of North Carolina schools, both comprehensive liberal arts schools like Lenoir-Rhyne College and state schools to see which of these models the proposed core curriculum most closely follows:

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InstitutionTotal Hours*Core HoursTuition*
UNCC12449

3,473

UNCG125483,435
UNCW124 (138)453,199
ASU127-8383,199
UNCP128442,825
WCP128423,273
Mars Hill144-541815,922
Meredith123-3251-6719,000
Presbyterian122 (149)5019,740
Brevard125 (127)5414,840
Newberry152-635018,101
Wingate1324515,000
Campbell(139)5114,200
Lenoir-Rhyne**128 (142)5617,850


[* the parenthetical figure is selected for, eg, Music Education.
** L-R is the 7th most expensive 4-year undergraduate institution in NC.

Tuition figures are taken from the US Department of Education, NCES (National Center for Education Statistics), Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System: http://nces.ed.gov/ipedspas/ExPT/.]


There are distinctly two types of institutions presented here, marked most dramatically by the difference in cost: the state universities, which charge around 40% of L-R's tuition, and liberal arts colleges, among which L-R is pretty close to average. Liberal Arts colleges tend to have more substantial Core requirements, but those in professional programs (eg Music Education) vary wildly. They offer fewer courses and majors, and have smaller /lesser facilities and services; but they also have smaller class sizes, and, it would seem, an atmosphere and identity that the larger schools lack. Something, this is to argue, justifies their spending an extra $14,000 per year over the likes of UNCG or UNCC. What is it?

The pattern of the larger university-model schools is clearly that which the Core Committee hopes to adopt -- which is to say, they intend that L-R should pretty much copy the Core / Major ratios of UNC institutions. The rub appears urgently and quickly: having thus constricted the liberal arts, and more or less given ourselves over to direct curricular competition with institutions that cost 40% of what we demand, what remains at L-R to justify that extra expense? It is a hefty cost-benefit gap.

We cannot gain in reputation as a "Liberal Arts College" by constricting the Core to make room for other things. So, the cost/benefit gap cannot be made up by the romance and prestige of that idea when there are so many institutions with a more credible claim to it. (To use the language of economics: ceasing, in effect, to specialize in the Liberal Arts, we will cease to be competitive at it). Do we have a clear enough identity, either among ourselves or in the marketplace, to make up the cost/benefit gap? Is L-R an especially social, cosmopolitan, or lively place? Is it in a town that would attract the general run of college students, like, say, Asheville or Chapel Hill? Are we more "caring" than the next place? Even if we are, how long can the College sustain itself on that single leg?

Why, then, are people willing to pay $14,000 over and beyond the $10,000 per year that is, in effect, the market price of a professional degree? Is our placement rate that much better? Do our graduates in, say, nursing or music education make that much more on average than their colleagues at UNCG? Again, we cannot gain in reputation as a "Liberal Arts College" by constricting the Core to make room for other things.

A considerable number of further questions and criticisms may be raised regarding the proposed core:

In the name of being interdisciplinary, the proposed core has courses that are supposed to integrate knowledge and understanding preceding courses that might give the students a basis for comprehending what is being discussed. For example the 2XX course [the proposed trimmed-down interdisciplinary required liberal arts course] is supposed to integrate "Great Ideas" in four credit hours by bringing together history, philosophy, religion, and literature. There is nothing, however, to indicate that the students should first have taken their "required electives" in religion and history. There will be no systematic arrangement or sequencing of courses to ensure that our graduates will have even the basics of a liberal arts education. Regarding history, the broad cultural and humanizing influence of the present World Civilizations courses is dismissed as either not important or too bothersome to trouble the students with. Under the proposed new core, future students might take no literature course at all (it is an option with music, theatre and art); and they very likely would never take a course in philosophy since it is an option together with physical wellness, fiscal wellness, and psychology. How can students benefit from "interdisciplinary study" when they lack the foundation to understand the basics of what is being discussed?

The present core proposal cuts the religion requirement by half. Lenoir-Rhyne is a Lutheran College characterized by the Lutheran tradition of a forthright commitment to a dialogue between faith and learning which is open to insights from secular learning and persons and ideas from various faith traditions. We are neither fundamentalist nor purely secular. We avoid these two extremes because of commitment to our historic mission. Many students and their parents as well as wealthy donors seek us out and support us for this reason. Furthermore, recent national and world events make it difficult to imagine a time when such dialogue is more needed. Are we breaking faith with the church that gave us birth as an institution of higher education?

The proposed core eviscerates the present strong natural science requirement of one life science and one natural science plus Science 300: Environmental Science. This requirement is to be reduced to only one laboratory science course. And the only successful interdisciplinary course to come out of the CEPAC core reform of 1969-70, Science 300, is to be eliminated. Interestingly, this is being proposed by the same core committee that eliminates the present strong disciplinary requirements in religion, history, literature, and philosophy in favor of one four-hour course—"2XX." If the core committee wishes to mandate interdisciplinary work, why eliminate a successful interdisciplinary course on a subject of such importance? Secondly, why would Lenoir-Rhyne choose to weaken our science requirement in a century so heavily dependent on scientific knowledge?

As the core proposal weakens the natural science requirement, so also the social and behavioral science requirement is cut -- from two courses presently to only one. Thus, the student’s exposure to knowledge of the political, economic, social and psychological dimensions of life is decreased half. As the recent Constitution Day convocation revealed, our students are not very strong in even our own system of government. How can cutting this aspect of the liberal arts curriculum help L-R foster intelligent citizens who can make contributions to local and larger communities?

A cursory look at the proposed core makes it appear that only one liberal arts area has escaped unscathed -- the foreign language requirement, since 6 hours are still required. This may not be true, however, for the core proposal says a second language competency is to "be achieved through 6 hours of course work or satisfactory performance on proficiency examination." Latin is a 12-hour requirement for most students. Is it to be eliminated? This would likely kill the Classics major. What about French and German? As liberal arts majors (such as philosophy, English, history, religion) that provide students for these programs slowly wither from lack of exposure to students who might choose to major in them, will the French and German majors decline or die as well? Will the School of Modern and Classical Languages have become simply the Spanish Department?

Are the professional areas stronger because of a weakened liberal arts core? At least one, our School of Education, might actually be in grave danger from it. Current competency requirements that are met by our current core courses may no longer be met. Education students might actually have to take additional courses to meet these competencies. It is also the case that our school systems and their principals are under increasing pressure to raise scores on EOG exams. This requires teachers who themselves have competency in writing, reading and critical thinking skills as well as a high standard of cultural literacy. Prospective teachers with these skills will be in high demand. Prospective teachers who lack these skills will not.

Furthermore, the cost/benefit analysis mentioned above cannot work to the advantage of any of the professional programs. Minus the identity of a traditionally strong liberal arts program, what can the Lenoir-Rhyne professional programs offer to justify parents spending the extra $15,000 to send their children here? [Note: We can ask a similar question with regard to Faculty salaries. We charge our students two-and-a-half times what they do at state institutions. We pay our faculty 2/3 as much as they pay at state institutions. We ask them to work harder, give them less resources and less time and encouragement for professional development. If we are just a smaller and poorer version of the state institutions then why come here. Why stay?]

As we consider the proposed new core curriculum in all of its ramifications, we must therefore ask ourselves if this "reform" strengthens our identity as a liberal arts college and makes us more competitive with the best colleges in our category. The answer is clearly a resounding "no." All those top U.S. New and World Report schools have strong liberal arts core programs. Does the proposed core, then, provide benefits to the professional schools sufficiently strong as to justify the college forsaking its liberal arts identity? Will a bonanza of new students be waiting to beat down our doors as soon as the core is reduced? Not when we have the extra $15,000 price differential between us and the state schools. We may find we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage and that the bowl is empty.