What Is a Core Curriculum?

Over the last half century, general education at colleges and universities in the United States has become an à la carte buffet where students choose courses from nearly endless options. In the worst cases, students are not even required to take courses in history, literature, mathematics, or science. The result is often a fractured education that fails to provide students with a coherent view of its purposes.

In response to this open curriculum, the idea of a core curriculum has experienced a resurgence. If the prevailing general education curriculum at colleges and universities is a smorgasbord, a core curriculum is a well-planned meal. Overall, core curricula provide students breadth and depth in the liberal arts and sciences, help them develop sound habits of mind, and prepare them for a meaningful life of effective and ethical citizenship. The form that a core curriculum takes to achieve these aims varies along a wide spectrum.

On one end there is the great books core where students take the same courses in sequence, read the same classic texts, and discuss their questions and ideas together over a common 4-year curriculum that covers the whole western intellectual tradition in philosophy, literature, music, mathematics, and science. This is exemplified by St. John’s College. At the other end are institutions with a core curriculum that serves as the general education program and is centered on broad learning outcomes (e.g., critical thinking, intercultural knowledge, ethical awareness, etc.). These outcomes are accomplished by students fulfilling distribution requirements in a range of liberal arts and sciences areas (e.g., humanities, communication, science, mathematics, etc.) using a myriad of course options. Purdue University’s foundational core exemplifies the learning outcomes core model.

Other types of core curricula fall between these two poles. The Core Curriculum at Columbia College, for instance, represents an abridged great books core. Its Core serves as its general education program, whereby students take commonly-required courses in such areas as contemporary civilization, literature, art, music, and science. All Core classes are discussion-based seminars, with all sections studying the same classic works at the same time. The small classes foster civil debate about great texts, art, questions, and ideas.

At Concordia University Irvine, where I serve as Director of Core Curriculum, we have what can be called a paired courses core. As part of the general education program, each new student takes pairs of commonly-required Core courses offered in back-to-back timeslots: mathematics and philosophy, biology and theology, history and literature. All transfer students take at least one Core pair: philosophy and theology. The Core courses focus on great works, questions, and ideas and the cultivation of intellectual habits and skills. The courses develop the students’ intellectual breadth and, by being taken in linked pairs, help students make interdisciplinary connections on common issues. The rest of the general education curriculum follows a distribution model.

Another model is the western traditions core. As part of the general education curriculum, students take a sequence of commonly-required courses covering the intellectual traditions of the west from the ancient Greeks to the modern day. The courses focus on reading great books in philosophy, politics, literature, science, and spirituality; examining great works of art; and discussing them in seminars. Carthage College’s Western Heritage seminar series is an example of this model.

A final model, although not exhausting the examples, is the thematic clusters core. Here students select a theme that interests them from a handful of set themes (e.g., power and justice, science and technology, women and culture, etc.) and then take a cluster of courses connected to that theme from various course options in many academic disciplines. This approach gives students breadth and depth of understanding on a current issue. Ithaca College’s Integrative Core Curriculum is an example of this type.

With such variety in core curricula today, one is prompted to ask two questions. What ideals and realities lead colleges and universities to adopt one model or another? What are the advantages of each model? In future postings I will explain why Concordia University Irvine’s Core Curriculum is structured the way it is based on its educational ideals and practical realities, and what its attendant benefits are.

Scott A. Ashmon is Director of Core Curriculum at Concordia University Irvine