The Erosion of the Core Curriculum

American higher education in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a growing lack of commitment to the unity of knowledge and a resultant emphasis on academic specialization. These trends, together with modern student-centered theories of learning and knowledge, eroded the classic core curriculum. The more modernity took hold, the more knowledge became fragmented, and the more knowledge became fragmented, the more the curriculum that transmitted that knowledge became fragmented. And the pace of this erosion was only quickened as students were more and more given the reins over the best way to be educated. Furthermore, the sheer number of courses required in general education gradually dwindled, with specialization and career training now the order of the day.

So the twentieth-century general education curriculum is the story of gradual erosion in colleges and universities. The more secularized schools were the first to innovate, especially schools more dominated by technical and technological training. Colleges that retained their Christian moorings gradually followed.

Distribution Requirements

The first step in this erosion was a move toward what was called distribution requirements, with careful qualifications. Under this system, students were required, for example, to take two three-hour courses of history. But both courses had to be in the same course sequence. For example, if  you took Western Civilization I, you had to take Western Civilization II. You could choose to take say, American History or Ancient History, but you had to take both the first and second semesters of whichever sequence you chose. Or, in the case of literature, you were required to take two courses in literature, and you could choose between Western Literary Masterpieces, American Literature, or British Literature. But you had to take both your literature courses in either Western, American, or British Literature. This was the more conservative distribution requirement system.

This eventually gave way to a freer distribution requirement system. So, to use history and literature as examples again, you had to take six hours in history, but you could choose any two history courses you wanted to take. You might choose to take a course in Readings in the Diplomatic History of Nineteenth-Century Russia or a course in the History of Rock Music since 1975. But you simply had to register for two courses in history. Or, in the case of literature, you could take one course in Greek Drama and another in Race, Sex, and Gender in the Works of Mark Twain. Student choice became more and more commonplace, especially after the student revolution movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Move Away from the Western Canon

The move away from a more traditional curriculum was also helped along by the move away from a traditional literary canon. This new mentality held, for example, that Guatemalan peasant history and literature was on par with the history of the Renaissance and the writings of Shakespeare.

This “politically correct” trend was simply a delayed result in the 1980s and 1990s of the change that really took place in the students that led the student revolution movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While the student protesters in the 60s and 70s were preoccupied with anti-war and economic justice, the student protesters of the 80s and 90s were preoccupied with race, sex, and gender, shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western Civ has got to go!”

The freer distribution requirement system over time began to be traded in for more of a general education elective system that would maximize student choice. So, rather than being able to choose two courses among a panoply of history courses, and another two courses among myriad literature courses, students in many colleges and universities were now required simply to choose, say, fifteen semester hours in the humanities, twelve semester hours in the social sciences, and so on.

Christian Higher Education’s Response

So how did Christian colleges react during this gradual evolution of the general education curriculum in American higher education during the twentieth century? Most—while emphasizing the Christian worldview throughout the curriculum and while often requiring specific courses in Christian worldview thinking and religion—became simply a warmed-over Christianized version of the general education trends of the twentieth century, but usually about twenty years behind the secular trends.

I’m not suggesting that Christian colleges didn’t know what they were doing or were not concerned about Christian higher education and the Christian worldview. They did and were. What I’m saying is that they weren’t as concerned as they should have been about the traditional aims of the college general education curriculum. And because of this concern, they unwittingly let something slip away that was an important expression of their uniquely Judeo-Christian view of higher education.

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