Faculty Forum Papers
WHY DO WE NEED A CORE?
Oregon State University
Why Do We Need a Core?
"His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature,
philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting
Thomas Carlyle he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done.
My surprise reached climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant
of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized
human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round
the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it."
Thus Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes in the second chapter of A Study in
Scarlet. When I first read this passage, I was immensely struck by it. Here was
Sherlock Holmes living in a metropolis of the age, a person of many singular accomplishments,
making his living in an arcane and specialized trade. He is, admittedly, a fictional character,
but there was no incongruity in portraying him as lacking completely any knowledge of the
Copernican Theory. This, to me, was remarkable. It raised the question whether
there is any body of knowledge which is essential for being an "educated" or
"civilized" person in our culture, aside from some obvious basic skills such as reading,
writing, and leaving telephone messages. I have kept my eyes open for a definition of
such an essential core that could be said to provide a minimum, basic education. I
have not seen anything for which one could not construct an easy counterexample,
such as the eminently civilized Sherlock Holmes.
To take my own field for an example. There is one class of people, who, if you
set them the task of determining what a "truly educated" person should know, are
sure to insist on some philosophy. Most probably this would be in the form of
knowing about some "great thinker" of the past such as Plato, Aristotle, or Kant.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of people, academics and other intellectuals even,
whom it would be foolish to consider uneducated, but whose ignorance of philosophy
and philosophers could not be more profound.
I do not intend to go on much longer. My drift, I hope, is becoming apparent.
The task which the Curriculum Review Commission has been set and which they have
bravely tried to accomplish is impossible. There are no educationally justifiable
course requirements that can be applied university-wide to insure a minimum
education for students in our culture. There is not even something close to this.
On the other hand, it seems to me that on the college level there is, perhaps,
enough uniformity in student populations that common intellectual weaknesses can be
identified. Perhaps most Engineering students can't write and most Liberal Arts students
can't think mathematically. What such weaknesses are can most reliably be discerned, I
think, by the faculty of the individual colleges. There are adequate mechanisms in place
for such individual college requirements to be specified. I see no need for an additional
layer of university-wide requirements, beyond, perhaps, total hours for a degree,
campus residency, and a few other similar items.
Michael ScanlanOpinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily
those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.
December 11, 1987