Cheney Proposes Core College Curriculum

By Mark Walsh — October 11, 1989 3 min read

Concerned that too many students are graduating from college without a strong grounding in “basic landmarks of history and thought,” the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities last week offered a suggested core curriculum for colleges and universities.

The title of the third major report by neh Chairman Lynne V. Cheney, 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, suggests the number of college credit hours that should be devoted to a core of learning in subject areas such as cultures and civilizations, foreign language, mathematics concepts, natural sciences, and the social sciences.

In conjunction with the report’s release, the endowment also released last week findings from a survey of college seniors conducted by the Gallup Organization. They indicated major gaps in the students’ knowledge of history and literature.

Forty-two percent of the 696 seniors surveyed earlier this year could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century, 58 percent did not know that William Shakespeare was the author of The Tempest, and 55 percent could not identify the Magna Carta. Had the seniors been graded on their answers to the survey on the standard college scale, the report notes, more than half would have failed.

Moreover, the college seniors performed only slightly better than 17-year-olds who answered identical questions in a 1987 neh-funded study conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Reporting on the results of that study, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch concluded in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? that teenagers’ ''shameful” lack of knowledge in history and literature demands dramatic revisions in school curricula to upgrade the teaching of those subjects.

The neh report notes that many colleges and universities allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree without taking courses in history, literature, science, or mathematics.

At some institutions, Ms. Cheney notes in the report, students can fulfill humanities requirements with courses in interior design or social-science requirements with fitness classes.

“Students who approach the end of their college years without knowing the basic landmarks of history and thought are unlikely to have reflected on their meaning,” she writes.

The suggested curriculum includes the following:

  • Cultures and Civilizations--18 hours in the origins of civilization, as well as coursework in Western, American, and non-Western civilizations.

Ms. Cheney briefly takes note of the ongoing debate in higher education over whether Western civilization should be de-emphasized in coursework to allow room for teaching more about non-Western cultures.

But while she suggests a two-semester course that would teach the civilizations of Africa, East Asia, Islam, Latin America, and South Asia, she also argues for the importance of teaching Western Civilization. “One need not look like Plato or Shakespeare in order to share in the tradition they helped form,” she writes.

  • Foreign language--12 hours of more advanced coursework in a language students have studied in high school.
  • Concepts of Mathematics--six hours focusing on major concepts, methods, and applications.
  • Foundations of Natural Sciences--eight hours of a laboratory course in physical and biological sciences.
  • Social Sciences and the Modern World--six hours examining political, economic, and social life in the last 200 years.

For each of the five areas of knowledge, the report offers examples of core courses that have been developed at colleges across the nation.

Single copies of the report are available from the Office of Publications and Public Affairs, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20506.