Tse: Liberating Minds to the Core

by Peter Tse | 5/3/15 6:43pm

It is possible to graduate without a basic understanding of many of the central ideas, facts and issues that shape our world. As a student here in the 1980s, I fulfilled distributive requirements that were as confusing as those we have today. Now the curriculum review committee is suggesting that we return to a variant of those requirements. This will fail to address the root of the problem, which is that our education outside of the major is scattershot. We must require all first-year students to take core courses, which should cover the critical ideas, issues and knowledge that are essential to understand our world.

Imagine if each of our three divisions offered one first-year core course. Humanities, social sciences and sciences could each decide what was most important to discuss. This would not only offer young minds a rigorous framework for making later choices, including which classes to take or what major to choose, it would unify the now scattered Dartmouth experience via shared intellectual engagement while the entire first-year class lived on campus.

An 18 year-old has little basis for knowing what is fundamental. Because I was not required to take economics or government classes, for example, I left Hanover knowing nothing about our economic or political system. Instead, I haphazardly chose what seemed both interesting and aceable. Most advisors then, like now, were swamped and unable to serve as intimate mentors. I ended up taking “Olmec Civilization,” “Black Social Movements” and “Romantic Poetry” Though good, such courses were like looking at the world through a pipe. I had no way of seeing how these topics connected to broader themes. Neither in high school nor in college was I required to read the Vedas, the Bible, any Greek tragedy or philosophy, Adam Smith, Shakespeare, Marx or the United States constitution. I did not learn about genetics, Islam, evolution, the brain, statistics or even the Cold War through which we were living. Even worse, upon graduating with my prestigious degree, I felt educated.

Only years later, after living abroad and meeting others my age who knew and understood much more, did I realize just how superficial my education had been outside of my physics major. What I lacked was context and understanding, and it took years of self-education to fill in the gaps. I realized that I had graduated without much exposure to the key ideas and issues that shape our world. In the name of intellectual freedom I had been sent to a buffet to sample whatever seemed enticing. There was little structure to guide a hungry mind that, on its own, had no way of knowing what to eat first or what was most nourishing.

Now a professor, I often begin my classes with various questions to probe my students’ understanding of what I regard as basic knowledge. Who was Siddhartha Gautama? Pericles? Kant? When was the Cambrian Explosion? The Reformation? The Mongol sacking of Baghdad? What is a mitochondrion? The Enlightenment? Existentialism? Often I am met with wildly incorrect guesses. Our high schools have often failed students, and we continue failing them in college. It is not our students’ fault. It is the fault of a culture that replaced the pursuit of deep understanding in liberal arts with wishy-washy electives.

Not all information is equal. Some facts and issues are more valuable to study and confront, if the goal is the cultivation of the kind of understanding that can set a human mind free. In failing to provide a “big picture” of the world, we are not only hurting our students, we are hurting the society that many of our students will later lead. How can someone understand a pivotal event, say 9/11 or the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, without understanding much else that triggered it? How can a person know how to respond wisely if, lacking basic knowledge and context, events seem to happen randomly?

The generation of professors now retiring, who were in college themselves in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rightly dismantled a core tied to an oppressive value system. The many social movements of that era aimed to liberate minds from a patriarchal, racist and sexist hierarchy that stifled most people who were not straight white men. In dismantling core curricula, though, professors threw the baby of understanding out with the bathwater of oppression. Their fear may have been that making a judgment about what is most valuable would be patronizing. But in shunning value judgments, this generation failed to create a new liberating core that would provide young people with guideposts that could set them on a path to freedom through global understanding.

After two generations, it is time to recreate a core that is not the old core of ancient Greek, Latin, the Bible and other canonical books, but is instead a modern core that fosters understanding of our world. A new core would make it difficult for students to graduate, as I did, with a scattershot, disjointed worldview. Everyone who leaves the College should understand the major events and ideas of Western and non-Western civilizations and histories. Yes, specialization is also desirable, but only after one has developed a broad view of how the specifics fit together.

There would surely be heated disagreements about what is important to include in our core courses. This is a debate we professors should welcome no matter how contentious, because otherwise, I fear we will shirk our responsibility to act as guides in the cultivation of understanding. We will fail to live up to the core mission of our liberal arts ideal, which is to foster an education that can liberate minds through understanding. Haphazardly met distributives are an intellectual cop-out. They are tantamount to a refusal to offer a map to young minds that want our guidance and mentorship. Students want to know what we professors regard as most fundamental. Yes, the 1950s core had to go — but so should the 1970s buffet. It is time to develop a 21st-century core curriculum for Dartmouth.

Peter Ulric Tse ’84 is a psychology professor.