A Student's Guide to the Core Curriculum

  • by Mark C. Henrie


The American university has for some years been an arena for boisterous disputes about the nature of the academic enterprise and a laboratory of experimentation on a range of fundamental social questions. Some praise innovations in student life as heralding a more just and tolerant multicultural society of tomorrow. Others dismiss these innovations as representing nothing but an intrusive form of political correctness. But however we judge these controversial political matters, we all surely agree that the university is a place for education. Yet here, very often, we face a serious problem. For while the advanced research conducted at U.S. universities is the envy of the world, it is also clear that at most institutions the basic undergraduate curriculum has been neglected and consequently experienced a dissolution.

Once, American universities required all students to take an integrated sequence of courses, a core curriculum, bringing coherence to their basic studies. The core often constituted half or more of the credits required for graduation. Through survey introductions to “the best which has been thought and said,” the core sought to provide a comprehensive framework by which students could orient their more specialized studies and within which they could locate themselves.

Today however, the core has vanished or been replaced by vague distribution requirements. Students in effect are left to fend for themselves. Thus, after four years of study, all requirements fulfilled and their degrees in hand, countless students now leave college in a state of bewilderment. They sense that somehow they have been cheated, but to whom can they complain? Laudable reform efforts are sporadically undertaken on various campuses, but it may be decades before these will begin to bear fruit. In the meantime, what is a student to do?

A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum is offered as one response to the predicament facing today’s undergraduates. After a preliminary discussion of the end or telos of higher education, this guide directs you to the courses generally still available in university departments that may be taken as electives to acquire a genuine body of core knowledge. These courses provide a framework that can help you figure out what is going on in the world. Although the contemporary university has often failed in its responsibilities to its students, a motivated student can nonetheless choose his or her courses well and thus reach the goal of a liberal education.


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