What Should Undergrads Know?

THE call for a core curriculum in colleges - a required, systematic study of history and classics - recurs every 10 or 15 years. Amid fanfare, Harvard reestablished a core in the early 1970s, which means the new National Endowment for the Humanities proposal (``50 Hours'') by NEH director Lynne Cheney is about on time. That's not to gloss it over. This latest call is part of a larger public worry - acute among cultural conservatives - about the future stability and fabric of an American society that lacks common reference points and language. It cites student ignorance about Columbus, the Civil War, Karl Marx, and Harry Truman. It echoes E.D. Hirsch, William Bennett, last year's Stanford debate over Western culture, and ``The Closing of the American Mind.''

Deeper still, it reflects an America whose earlier glib triumphal identity and story has not yet adjusted to the complexities, cynicism, and emerging pluralism of the past 30 years.

The urgency felt about an ignorance of common culture and ideas in America needs to be taken seriously. So should some of the ideas and examples in the NEH report. Colleges today often lack intellectual structure and coherence. Requirements are haphazard. Harvard's ``core,'' for example, has bloated to 145 courses. A recent ``Washington Monthly'' cover story on higher education is replete with core offerings at colleges from Yale to Berkeley with titles like ``The Age of Dinosaurs,'' ``Spy Novels,'' ``Poets Who Sing.'' Half of a fine arts requirement at one school can be satisfied by a course on Persian carpets. Feel as if your $15,000 tuition is flying away?

Students do need to study the thematic linkages (justice, dissent, empathy) between ancient and modern ideas. Further, it's a little silly to complain that students aren't aware of Asian, African, and Latin cultures when they are still pretty fuzzy about the Emancipation Proclamation, and just what Richard Wright wrote.

Yet, lacking a magic wand, it's doubtful that Ms. Cheney or her proposal will have much effect. First, fairly or unfairly, the NEH plan will be linked to a roseate patriotism that doesn't sell on campus. Second, the report ignores the reality of campus politics. It ignores the power of faculty and departments. (There's truth to the joke that a college today is a collection of departments loosely connected by a central heating system.)

The fragmentation and specialization of fields, ideological correctness (a ``Lefter-than-thou'' syndrome), turf battles, and a simple matter of time are powerful mitigating influences. The Boy Scouts might as easily clean up Beirut.

Beyond that, core proposals threaten to trivialize a deeper problem. Learning tends to be messier than some core advocates suppose. What students need is a sense and feeling of history - the atmospheres and assumptions behind the narrative. Perhaps colleges can help protect their consumers by recommending but not requiring ``core'' tracks.

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