Core 151 at Colgate

Whose Core Curriculum?

2014 Student sit-in in the Hurwitz Admission Center. Nearly 300 students participated to advocate for greater racial inclusivity in Colgate University’s Core Curriculum.

What is the Core Curriculum?

Ever since its conception in the 1930s, Colgate University’s Core curriculum has become an irreplaceable part of its educational philosophy. Broken into five separate courses, much of the Core curriculum focuses on recognizing the connectivity between the old and the modern through small discussion-based classes. Perhaps no other Core course epitomizes this relationship more than Legacies of the Ancient World, which explores texts such as The Odyssey and Genesis while recontextualizing their thematic patterns in a modern context. Despite acting as an academic cornerstone for nearly a decade, the Core curriculum, especially Legacies of the Ancient World, has faced intense scrutiny from students. In the wake of recent national protest over racial inequality, students have loudly criticized the traditionalistic nature of Legacies in the Ancient World, arguing through reports and initiatives that the course is too white and western-centric to properly highlight the diversity of Colgate’s campus. Despite efforts by Colgate to diversify, including making texts that highlight other rich and distinct cultures such as the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita optional, many students argue that the university is missing an opportunity to showcase nonwestern perspectives and because of this, are invalidating other legacies.

How were these problems addressed? 

To address these concerns, Colgate formed the Core Revision Committee (CRC), a task force comprising of 10 faculty members from different fields of study, to create a curriculum that better reflects the many demographics found on Colgate’s campus. After much deliberation, the CRC drafted a proposal that, among other things, called for a decrease from five Core courses to three. These include “Text and Readers”, which similarly to Legacies of the Ancient World and Challenges of Modernity, focuses on finding multiple interpretations within shared “touchstone” texts, “Science in Context”, a series of courses that asks students to find the relationship between science and broader society, and “Social Worlds: Peoples and Power”, which would analyze the associations between ethics and politics as well as social forces such as colonialism and imperialism. The plan also proposes a shift to a competencies model which designates courses with specific tags that better encapsulate the increasing range of courses Colgate offers. These seven Competency requirements, ranging from Effective Writing to Formal and Quantitative Reasoning, would be necessary for students to take in order to graduate (similar to the current Areas of Inquiry requirements).

What does the faculty think?

While many students have welcomed these suggested changes due to their strides towards greater inclusivity, many teachers have been hesitant to embrace such a seismic adjustment. Polling data among faculty, both in the form of surveys and qualitative opinions, suggests that while most of the proposed Core components and competencies received significant support, few teachers are actually likely to teach the course themselves. Anonymous comments from professors echo these findings, as many argue that while the proposed changes are well-intentioned, they are either too under-resourced or nondescript for them to fully embrace.

A Professor’s Perspective (full interview featured below)

In order to gain a better understanding of why certain faculty members have apprehensions over teaching courses from the newly proposed Core curriculum, I spoke briefly with Professor Benjamin Stahlberg, a Senior Lecturer of Jewish Studies who teaches a Legacies of the Ancient World course. Having taught at Colgate for nearly a decade, Stahlberg has gradually become worried over the ways the university’s core curriculum is being shaped. This was evident throughout our discussion, as although Stahlberg believes several of the competency propositions, including the Foreign Language and Effective Writing requirements, are steps in the right direction, he also feels as if many are “amorphous” and “ill-defined”. Due to the lack of proper clarification regarding which competencies would count towards which courses, Stahlberg is worried that broad fields of study such as humanities and history would be incorrectly labeled. This includes his “Experiencing Judaism” course, which he fears students may choose not to enroll in if they have already taken another class that satisfies the same competency. These fears carry over to the Core Components, whose deemphasis of reading comprehension left him “greatly disappointed”. Since students will not be “encountering as many texts” or have exposure to “literature that comes from a variety of different cultures and a variety of different periods”, much of the intellectual and academic rigor of the previous Core “will be lost” according to Stahlberg. When asked about students’ requests for greater cultural representation, while Stahlberg agreed that the University “has been slow to diversify” and has only taught “the greatest hits of what humanity has produced” through the Core curriculum, he ultimately believes that the courses like Legacies of The Ancient World still employ a wide variety of texts including The Gospel of Matthew or the Qur’an that “don’t belong to some homogenous, white, western culture”. Despite his belief that not all texts subscribe to a western-centric ideology, he hopes the school can do more to “stretch” the variation in the texts teachers examine.

 Once again, Whose Core Curriculum?

Keeping up with the ever-changing dynamic of the Core revision process can be confusing and incredibly frustrating for both students and faculty alike. While the CRC has made strides to accommodate both parties, one thing is clear: faculty and student opinions are so diverse that it may ultimately be impossible to create a Core curriculum that everyone can agree on. Perhaps instead of focusing on how the university can narrow the criteria for what a Core class should look like, maybe it should instead broaden it and give the faculty the freedom to teach the subjects they want to while still utilizing shared or similar course material such as the “touchstone” texts. While there is no perfect solution for each and every member of the Colgate community’s issues with the Cores, the best answer may be to enable rather than restrict.

Jeffrey Leyton is a Sophomore at Colgate University from New York City. He is planning on majoring in Economics with a minor in History.