What They Should Know
Colleges may despise the idea of standardization, but for years they have essentially embraced it anyway. The so-called standard curriculum, devised in 1917, may no longer require two hours a week of Bible class, but the idea of core knowledge remains.
The distribution system, which requires students to learn some history, say, even if they are studying science and some English even if they want to become engineers, goes back to the time when college was seen not just as a training ground for workers but also as a producer of learned gentlemen. Even as universities became more specialized, they worked toward a common culture. But by the 1970s, the core curriculum was being criticized as too western, too white, and too male. Brown University, as just one example, had scrapped the general education requirement altogether. But most colleges simply added more diversity to the list of Things Every College Kid Should Know. García Márquez now shared the syllabus with Marx.
Disagreement on core curriculum remains. But educators can generally agree that students should leave college with proficiency in the following areas: critical thinking, logical reasoning, computation, at least one foreign language, appreciation for diverse cultures, and speaking and writing. If they come away with those skillsand some lasting friendshipsthe college could be considered to have done its job.
This story appears in the March 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.