Just what should liberally educated students study?

The incredible explosion of knowledge throughout the world is causing liberal arts colleges to ask themselves - again and again - what should undergraduates study?

Some are opting for what others would call the ''easy'' solution; i.e., they are returning to a core curriculum.

Take CUNY's Brooklyn College, for example. Its faculty has just developed a core program. The stated purpose?

To provide students with a ''common experience'' which will become the ''starting point for a distinctive college education.''

Included in the core are courses in 10 areas of knowledge: literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, music, art, modern science, the world of computers, social and political theory, and the non-Western world.

Students at Brooklyn College will delve into the classics of Greece and Rome to discover their heritage. They will study great works of art from the ancient Near East to the 20th century's Picasso and Matisse, be introduced to Bach and Berlioz, jazz, the Australian aborigine rain chant, the Javanese gamelan.

They will study power, authority, and social organization in America, find out how American and European civilizations developed - and then how these civilizations related to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They will be introduced to mathematical reasoning and computer programming as well as to what are considered to be the great literary masterpieces of the world.

And they will learn the rudiments of chemistry, physics, biology, and geology and how these sciences are used and should be used in promoting a better world. They can choose to study an African, Asian, or Latin American culture. And they can explore such rudimental human questions as ''What can I know?,'' ''What is real?,'' and ''What should my values be?'' Such a program is hard to find fault with.

In their desire to provide students with a ''common experience,'' a ''starting point,'' the Brooklyn College faculty planners have spanned what many of us value the most about a liberal arts curriculum - an opportunity for students to gain both a depth and a breadth of knowledge.

How, then, is their program different from or better than what's being taught elsewhere as ''general education'' or ''liberal arts''?

As I see it, the main difference between a core program such as Brooklyn College's, or Harvard's highly touted return to a similar core of studies, and a liberal arts curriculum with ''distribution requirements'' lies in the degree of choice students are given in selecting their courses.

What I suspect many people don't realize is that the two curricular models are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Each contains some of the other.

Viewed on a continuum, with a pure core curriculum at one extreme and a pure distributive model at the other, the core program would prescribe for the students what courses to take and when to take them.

One assumption behind such a plan is that the faculty knows, can agree upon, and should define for the student what - out of all the vast knowledge, past and present - is worth knowing and carrying on as part of our common heritage.

At the other end of the continuum is a pure ''distributive'' model, often described as a ''smorgasbord.'' In this program, nothing is required. Instead, the college provides a large and varied menu of courses in each liberal arts area for students to choose from, and the students choose what is palatable to them.

One assumption behind this model is that because each student is a unique individual engaged in the process of discovering who he or she is, no one set of courses would be right for all students.

Most colleges find themselves somewhere between these two curricular extremes. A recent study of college catalogs indicates that 85 percent of our colleges are attempting to combine the best of the core and distributive models by offering some specified required courses and some selected from lists from various disciplines (''distribution requirements'') - as well as some electives. Brooklyn College's program, for example, does the same.

Meanwhile, the movement toward the core end of the spectrum persists, and for good reason. Those moving in that direction are doing so partly as a reaction to faculty who have overspecialized - even hidden - in their disciplines and who have consequently lost a sense of community of knowledge.

Others may be reacting to the ''trendiness'' of the '60s and to the realization that students don't always make good choices.

Still others are concerned about the increasing pressures - from both parents and students -- for early specialization in a career or vocationally focused program.

Yet common to all who lean to the core curriculum, I believe, is a yearning for some force or means to pull education back onto a track where there is a sense of shared heritage -- shared knowledge, shared values, shared history.As the world continues to fragment, to become more complex, these same educators would like to help redefine our ''culture'' and form a more stable community. They would like to do this by providing a common educational experience for our students through the vehicle available to them -- the liberal or general education program.

This sounds like a simple, reasonable answer to a real need. But I would argue that it is not.

We cannot turn the clock back to a time before the knowledge explosion or to a time when we had a common culture. Nor can we agree on what knowledge will be essential for coping in the decades to come.The very fragmentation and complexity that have created uncertainty among educators has to be dealt with. It won't be going away. That being the case, shouldn't we be teaching our students the skills, knowledge, and values that will enable them to cope with complexity and diversity?

Isn't this what the liberal arts disciplines -- history, science, art, philosophy, mathematics, social science, music -- are designed to do, to help us understand how to solve the complex problems facing mankind today?

Each discipline has its own perspectives, methodologies, approaches to knowledge. And it's these perspectives and methodologies that students need -- not some specified set of courses. My solution:

Let students choose the courses they are interested in.

Let them practice viewing the various subjects they choose through the various lenses provided by each discipline.

Let them learn some strategies for coping with complex issues.

What they least need is the idea that there are simple answers -- that if we can just learn the ''right'' facts or collect enough opinions our problems will be solved.

I suspect that eventually all of us working with liberal arts undergraduates will have to settle for a compromise between the two extremes of a core and a distributive model.

We will do this because students as future world citizens do need to develop a sense of community, built on shared experience and knowledge. Students, as individuals, also need to know how to make choices, how to deal with complexities -- indeed, how to integrate their own experiences. They need the best of both kinds of learning.

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