Focus the New Core Curriculum on Vital Knowledge, Not Trendiness


Core classes should introduce students to a wide array of vital information. (Courtesy of Instagram)

John Davenport, Faculty Op-Ed

As you probably know, the faculty of Fordham’s undergraduate Arts & Sciences colleges and the Gabelli Business college are about to rewrite their core course requirements. Nine faculty members elected somehow will propose a much smaller core, probably as little as 10 required courses (or one course from each of 10 required buckets, with multiple courses to satisfy each). This is bound to be a contentious process with potentially disastrous results for a Fordham education.

Not everything about this is bad. Many students and professors think the core should be revised, and so do I. Offering multiple ways of fulfilling each requirement is generally a good idea. For example, my own department should have offered different courses under the theme of philosophical ethics long ago.

But the extreme notion that we cut the core to 50% of its current size starts from a basic fallacy that students entering college can judge well enough what they need to learn. That makes about as much sense as imagining that we don’t need doctors and should be able to diagnose our own physical illnesses and write our own prescriptions. The whole point of a core is that faculty generally know (or should know) a lot more than incoming college students about what is most important to learn for a good life in the 21st century.

Literally hundreds of former students and alumni over my 25 years at Fordham have told me that they would not have chosen to take a course in X, Y or Z area, but are so glad that they did, because only afterwards could they understand why  that subject matter is so vital  for everyone to know (at least at an introductory level). No student will love every core course they take; but they also cannot anticipate at age 18 or 22 all the possible changes in jobs, life-circumstances and social or technological developments that may require them to draw on the broad array of basic familiarity they have with different fields of inquiry. For example, when I finished college with a philosophy major, I was surprised to find myself working for the biology editor of a university press — but I was sure glad that I was required to take some bio in high school and college!

So the idea that it’s somehow progressive to have a minimal core is confused and counterproductive. It would be irresponsible of faculty members to sell this illusion. I occasionally get the feeling from a few colleagues that some perverse desire for revenge against humanities departments is operating here. But whatever the motives may be, there are two other big problems with where this core “revision” (or decimation) is going.

The problems concern both the vague feel-good aims defined during the first “phase” of this process (2022-2023) and the sort of courses that these aims will be used to rationalize. Students are to become “active, empathetic, globally-informed citizens who collaborate effectively with others across differences in service of justice and the common good” (Phase One vision statement, April 2023). Sounds great, right?

But here is the first big problem. The 16 more specific goals that follow this vision do not include anything like “learning the foundational concepts, distinctions, and theories that are essential for understanding and interpreting central conditions of structural justice.” Such a goal is essential if we really care about understanding socio-political justice instead of merely posturing a lot. I don’t care which departments are involved in offering courses to reach this goal; it does not have to be only philosophy. But without it, Fordham graduates will not be able to assess real-world issues involving justices and their causes with any kind of rigor.

In particular, every student needs to learn basic elements of game theory, basic types of market failures and accounts of public goods — which are to the study of justice what the periodic table is to chemistry. Students cannot “work towards making the world…more peaceful, sustainable, and just” (current goal 2.4) without, for example, knowing that Tragedies of the Commons can take the form of prisoner’s dilemmas or Assurance games, or that many informal customs and other “cultural productions” (current goal 1.1) coordinate people to reach better equilibria through norms that overcome assurance problems, chicken games and other collective action problems. A real foundational course would require students to acquire at least basic familiarity with different dimensions of justice — from basic rights and meritocratic processes to transactional justice and social insurance against risks not insurable in free markets — along with utilitarian and other common distributive equity norms that may be appropriate in different contexts. They would need to learn why common goods include not only public goods in the economic sense, but other goods with putative objective value that market demand functions cannot measure. The study of justice has become a quasi-science, but very few faculty seem to realize this.

Instead, we are likely to get the following sort of options to fulfill a core Social Justice requirement (these are made up just to illustrate the point): “17th Century Peasant Revolutions in Decolonial Perspective,” “Class and Gender in Painting and Sculpture: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Americas,” “The Economics of Forced Labor in 19th Century Europe and the US,” “Privacy Rights in the Post-Dobbs America,” “Performing Subjugated Bodies: Medical Tourism and the Media,” etc. I have nothing against such topics, but none of them will cover even 1% of the most basic stuff that core courses on theories on justice should include. The point of a core should not be to indulge faculty members’ desire to teach the highly specialized subjects in which they publish. The same would apply for a core goal — if there were one in the Phase One document, which there is not — to understand at least the basics about each of the world’s major religions, both in doctrinal and cultural senses. A course on (say) “20th Century Liberation Theology” or “Personhood in Akan Mythology” would not fulfill this goal — even though these could be very valuable electives to offer. 

In sum, there’s no evidence that Fordham’s new mini-core will include any fundamental subject matter requirements. This cues up the second big problem: the Phase One document does not acknowledge that core requirements should remedy key gaps in what students’ high school curricula and what they typically osmose from the ocean of social media into which they were born. It is crucial, for example, to consider that most American students — unlike their European peers — come to college with almost zero background in philosophy, religious studies and current global events and trends (as opposed to our plodding old pyramids to WWII high school world history). And less than half have any robust background in government or civics. Now imagine a future Fordham student who takes one core course on a religious tradition and two core courses in literature. By the end of eight years in high school and college, they will graduate with at least six or seven semesters of English or literature and one semester of a religious studies topic. Is this “too much religion?”

So what of “global citizens” in the vision statement? The current plan includes no rigorous goal for the survey course this would require. To succeed in the 21st century, students need to know the basics about the most influential political and cultural developments in all regions of the world during the last 50-70 years. They get virtually none of this in high school, even though they will be working with people from many different regions in a globalized economy. To fill this crucial gap, Fordham needs to require a year-long course surveying, for example, developments in eight major regions. That cannot be accomplished by taking a course on, say, sugar production in the 19th century colonial Caribbean, or a course on images and conceptions of femininity in late medieval near-eastern societies. 

Instead, every Fordham student should graduate knowing something about all the following types of topics: Gandhi, Indian independence and Hindu-Muslim tensions; the basics of 20th century transitions to democracy in Latin America; how Deng Xiaoping and his successors ended Maoist economic doctrine and made China into a market economy while deepening dictatorial oppression; how Southeast Asian nations recovered from the effects of colonization and the Korean and Vietnam wars (including anti-“communist” purges in Indonesia); how Jacques Chirac and Helmust Kohl did almost nothing to help Bosnian Muslims being slaughtered by Serbian irregular militias in the 1990s, leaving the rescue to Bill Clinton; how apartheid ended in South Africa and how Qaddafi’s pan-Arab supremacism encouraged the regime in Sudan to use pro-Arab militias to slaughter half of a million “Black” (non-Arab) people in Darfur; and what the Rwandan genocide was. Unless we require such a global survey course, the “global” talk in our core plan will be empty rhetoric and self-deception in service of unjust desires to turn specialized electives into core-fulfilling courses.

The same goes for civics and for elementals of sound reasoning. Goal 3.1 says that students will learn to “think critically…and reason logically to make compelling and imaginative arguments.” This will be meaningless unless there is a requirement to learn basic deductive logic, inference to best explanations, informal fallacies, how to understand statistics (and not be fooled by graphs and charts) and how to find reliable sources. I doubt that my colleagues will demand such a requirement; it is not “free” and loose enough. We can instead expect nebulous appeals to “interdisciplinarity” to rationalize offering ten different courses with some loose thematic connection to “reasoning” to fulfill this requirement — thereby cheating students out of what they need most from a core.

More generally, a sound core must challenge dogmas students have acquired from popular culture and teach what they do not yet appreciate the dangers of not knowing. It makes little sense, for example, for our core offerings to double or triple down on teaching ever more about, say, climate change and race and gender issues. Students are deluged with mass media on these topics, surpassed only by clickbait on celebrity lifestyles. If students knew little about such topics, it would be absolutely vital to focus heavily on them in the core and thereby shake up their predisposed biases. Instead, it is the vital topics I have described above that students are least likely to know about. Without a profound rethinking, Fordham is about to miss a golden opportunity and do a disservice to at least two decades of students adopting a weak core full of trendy connoisseur offerings rather than essential content for all. 

John Davenport is a professor of philosophy at Fordham College Rose Hill.