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Examining Core

Observer Editorial | Friday, December 5, 2003

Among undergraduates at Notre Dame, horror stories abound about taking the University two-semester Core class, required for all Arts and Letters majors. Over the past few years, the Core class has earned a reputation among students as a pointless requirement.

Because of concerns expressed by students and faculty, the University is currently considering four proposals for changes to the Core program. One option would change Core to a one-semester sophomore year course based on readings chosen by the faculty member. A second proposal would keep Core as a two-semester course, with one sophomore year semester focused on general readings and a semester during senior focused more closely on students’ interests. Others options would change the Core readings to classical texts only, or allow faculty members to choose their own reading lists, while maintaining the two-semester requirement.

Originally, the Core program aimed to help students think more broadly about a range of topics and integrate ideas they learned in Arts and Letters classes in a discussion-based format.

But somewhere in its history, the Core program has lost its focus. As a result, Core classes have earned a negative reputation among most students and many sophomores enter the class expecting to have a bad experience. They dread the two-semester requirement and often view Core as a waste of two semesters. Even some students who say they like the class admit they didn’t learn anything. How is a program like this beneficial to students if so many feel apathetic about it?

The University should be commended for recognizing that the Core class needs reform, but specific changes are needed to make the class beneficial to students and faculty. In reforming the Core program, the University must combat student negativity by clearly defining the goals of Core. Because students do not understand the purpose of the class, they are confused about how to approach it and what to expect from it. To help promote a better attitude among students towards the Core course, the University must clarify the contribution that it believes Core could make to undergraduate education – and then make sure Core actually fulfills what its planners want it to do.

Next, because many students view Core as waste of two classes, the current two-semester requirement should be dropped in favor of a single semester, giving students more freedom to take other electives that they find more relevant. This change would also reduce the strain on faculty, who contend that teaching Core takes time away from research and other teaching. And to make the Core classes themselves relevant, faculty should also be allowed to choose at least some of their own reading material. Then, students can take Core classes with professors who teach subject material in a student’s realm of interest. At the same time, faculty must also be provided with clearer guidelines about how to teach the Core course to ensure the program’s central focus – whatever that may be – remains. The majority of class time should be used for student discussion rather than lecture, and Core teachers must be able to stimulate discussion among their students rather than use the class as a personal soapbox.

Arts and Letters officials often defend Core by saying it is essential to a liberal arts education. It therefore is ironic that a class designed to help students learn new perspectives is in desperate need of a fresh image itself.