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Ask the Editor

Question: Why do you people make such a big deal about whether or not a given school has a “core curriculum”? Why is that even important—and what should a student do at a school that doesn't have one?

The traditional core curriculum, as it grew up in American universities, was intended to make sure that every student who attended a liberal arts institution would receive the broad-based, humanistic education that helps a person expand his range of abilities, stretch beyond his "comfort zone," and develop some basic knowledge of the history, art, literature, religion and philosophy that have formed our civilization. The goal was to create a solid foundation for further learning, to level the playing field among students of very different backgrounds, to encourage a college-wide conversation about ideas by creating a common vocabulary, and to prepare students for responsible citizenship in a free society. Students who receive such a formation are more intellectually flexible and capable of switching among different subject matters, perhaps making unexpected connections between history and economics, science and art. That is where most innovation comes from, and it describes the supple mind of someone who is capable of leadership in business, government, or any other field of endeavor. Given how frequently in today's economy workers end up having to change careers, this kind of flexibility is more crucial than ever.

And yet, most leading colleges have abandoned the democratic aspiration of providing such a general education to every student. Instead, students are given Chinese menus of electives to take, and encouraged to specialize too soon—while basic courses in the civilization of the West and even American history have been turned from requirements into options. The result has been a generation of one-sided specialists with huge blind spots that would have shamed most high-school graduates in past generations. We have scientists who never studied philosophy making ill-informed statements or decisions about medical ethics; women's studies graduates whose knowledge of history begins in 1850; English professors who never had to study Shakespeare (much less English history) as undergraduates. This has fragmented the intellectual life and robbed students of the intellectual and moral riches a college education was always meant to impart.

We see this, and that is why we laud schools (such as the University of Chicago) that have kept such core curricula alive. It is also why we provide, with each college profile, a list of the eight courses currently offered which every student should take, to provide himself with something like a traditional liberal arts education. It won't replace or even interfere with pursuing a major. But it will guarantee that such students have a broad and deep understanding of the basics, which will help them understand our culture and government for the rest of their lives.

Do you have specific questions about a school we profile here? General inquiries about applying to and evaluating colleges? Be sure to check out our FAQs and if you still need help, submit your question here for expert guidance from the editors.

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