"Expanding the limits of lived and written experience: Required Independent Study"
There are certain concepts and ways of presenting ideas that all educated human beings must know. This fundamental assertion about education seems to lie at the heart of the concept of requiring the completion of a core curriculum for all graduating undergraduate students. At very least, the existence of a common core belies the university's desire that all graduates of its institution are versed and knowledgeable in certain basic skills, such as writing a cohesive essay and understanding how to conduct an experiment according to the scientific method.
However, most institutions, including Columbia, also have some other 'agendas' in constructing a common core curriculum, namely that all students and graduates of the institution will be familiar with a certain canon of books and authors that have been quantified over time as 'great literature.' It is with this implicit, and occasionally explicitly stated assertion, that education becomes not simply a conference of a set of basic learning skills, but comes to possess a certain 'social agenda' as well, a social engineering of young, unformed, undergraduate minds. At least, so would say such educational theorists of social liberation, rather than social orthodoxy.
However, educational enthusiasts of the canon such as Allan Bloom, author of the controversial text The Closing of the American Mind would assert that this type of social agenda is beneficial to young scholars, rather than a negative inculcation in the ideology of 'dead white males.' Bloom believes in the manifest greatness of such authors as Emerson and Shakespeare. To be educated in this society, Bloom would assert that one must have more than a passing acquaintance with such author's writings, belief structures, and ideas. The notion of a quality education and a common core as a reasonable requirement for graduation, is, for Bloom, also inextricably linked to a specific kind of cultural literacy. For Bloom cultural literacy is touching the face of the divine in the form of comprehending literature in books, for those who disagree with him, cultural literacy is simply the educational version of Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, knowing certain facts as opposed to others that are arbitrary deemed 'better' or worth more 'cocktail party gossip' points to know, after graduation. Bloom writes against what he sees as a doctrine of cultural relativism, an affliction of affluence upon a land such as America, the only culture to question with the nature of its founding intellectual fathers -- and some mothers.
However, for, for many advocates of a multicultural education who wish to dispense with a common core, Bloom's argument is manifestly xenophobic and narrow-minded in nature. Why, they might query, is the African classic novel Things Fall Apart, by Achebe, any less great than the Yeats' poem whose title the author drew inspiration from? Advocates of multiculturalism would state that the idea of a cannon, as in the Western canon of thought and literature is false. It is tautological in its self-justifying rhetoric, holding that 'all educated people should read Shakespeare,' therefore to be an educated person without a substantial grounding in Shakespeare is absurd. Individuals from different backgrounds have the right to count knowing more about their background as knowledge. They should not simply have to be educated in greater depth about the culture of those who have long deemed them as 'other.'
Multiculturalists often ask who made Shakespeare, to take such one 'dead white male,' such an unquestioned arbiter of greatness? After all, what constitutes a full education used to simply be a grounding in the Greek and Roman classics, a hundred years in Victorian Britain, for example. Back in the day when Oxford was the seat of all learning, science considered was the province of lesser minds and technocrats, the modern languages were fit only for the education of ladies, and the theater was simply entertainment. All of these ideas have changed in recent years, as the sciences are now considered some of the most challenging subjects in any college curriculum, knowing a modern language is a requirement for graduation at most undergraduate institutions, and yes, Shakespeare is studied and considered 'difficult yet rewarding' reading, even though he wrote as a popular entertainer of his own times.
Given the subjective nature of what is canonical and non-canonical, it is tempting to dispense with the need for a common core in education at all -- why not leave it up to the student, to chose his or her own classes and course of study? Although some institutions have opted for this, even from a social and psychological point-of-view, some multicultural educators might suggest that this is the wrong approach. Don't younger students need some guidance? After all, many of them are still attempting to find out what they are interested in. It is easy to simply be rid of a common core curriculum, or simply to include skills classes that teach writing or other exercises in methodology, without attempting to create the foundations for the education in any particular cannon -- let the student create his or her own canon, or wait for society to reconstitute a more multicultural canon, one might say.
It is rather ironic, one might also, reflect, that Allen Bloom's fascination with great 'dead white males,' and his anger at those who suggest that knowing about the writings of ancient Greek philosophers is no less seminal than comprehending the mythological structure of a Toni Morrison novel, such as Beloved, is that all of these 'dead white male' authors were intensely connected to the debates of their own times and emphasized personal experience as well as reading as a way to connect with the world. Emerson lauded his walks in the woods as a transparent 'I' in formulating his views about America and nature in his essay entitled "Nature." Shakespeare was a popular dramatist who collaborated frequently with his other authors, worked as a professional actor and shareholder of a theatrical company, and carefully constructed his dramas in such a fashion to draw the attention of the 'groundlings' from the very beginning of his plays. Even Milton was intensely aware of the literary and theological debates of his time and incorporated his personal experience of blindness into his poetry. Why is it so radical for students to demand that they may do the same, by learning about the classics of their own cultures that are best integrated into their own educations and their own lives?
Allen Bloom suggests that education should not shy away from prejudicing young minds in a particular direction, however, is necessary, lest young and open minds be filled with what he terms junk, or popular culture. However, what was once considered junk or popular culture, like Shakespeare, is now part of the foundation of the cannon. Moreover, how will individuals retain a living interest in the classics throughout their lives, if they do not connect the past to the lived actions of their present?
Thus, one proposal for a new class into the common core is to accept that at this moment of historical time in education, and given the 'understanding' that exists between the college and its students that students have accepted the existence of a common core of skills and readings to be contingent to their educational experience and graduation of the college -- given all those things, why not make the study of the immediacy of experience, a great work of classical literature, and a modern work of art or popular art form a requirement for the common core?
For instance, a student could use his or her experience on the track team, the study of the classical poet Pindar's odes to Olympic glory, and the modern media construction of the meaning of the Olympics as a way of meeting his or her requirement. This required independent study component of the core curriculum would enable students to make the connections between life, the past, and education that are so critical to re-working the meaning of higher education today. In addition, the requirement of independent study would help students appreciate how the immediacy of experience affected authors in the past, and understand how culture today is very much 'of its moment' and not for 'all time' -- in other words, our understandings of the world, multicultural and otherwise, are just as localized and subjective as past author's understandings of their own presents.
It might be argued that this would force students into doing too much research, like a thesis, too early on in their educational curriculum. However, unlike a thesis, the independent study required would be of a relatively narrow nature. Most students either perform extracurricular work, work for pay or volunteer, or engage in some social activity. A volunteer for community service organizations might connect her work for the homeless to the writings of Florence Nightingale today and to poverty advocates of the present, or even to the political writings of Marx and contemporary politicians. A musical enthusiast might discuss bacchanalian…