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In education, a core curriculum is a curriculum, or course of study, which is deemed central and usually made mandatory for all students of a school or school system. Core curricula are often instituted, at the primary and secondary levels, by school boards, Departments of Education, or other administrative agencies charged with overseeing education. At the undergraduate level, individual college and university administrations and faculties sometimes mandate core curricula, especially in the liberal arts. But because of increasing specialization and depth in the student's major field of study, a typical core curriculum in higher education mandates a far smaller proportion of a student's course work than a high school or elementary school core curriculum prescribes.
Examples in Higher Education
Amongst the best known and most expansive core curricula programs at leading American colleges are University of Chicago's and that of Columbia College at Columbia University. Both can take up to two years to complete without advanced standing, and are designed to foster critical skills in a broad range of academic disciplines, including: the social sciences, humanities, physical and biological sciences, mathematics, writing and foreign languages. However, other selective institutions have largely done away with core requirements in their entirety, the most famous being the student driven course selection of Brown University. Further, as core curricula began to be diminished over the course of the twentieth century at many American schools, several smaller institutions became famous for embracing a core curriculum that covers nearly the student’s entire undergraduate education, oftentimes utilizing classic texts of the western canon to teach all subjects including science. St. John’s College in the United States remains famous in this vein.
Choice v. Curriculum
Many educational institutions are currently trying to balance two opposing forces: On the one hand, some believe students should have a common knowledge foundation, often in the form of a core curriculum; on the other hand, others want students to be able to pursue their own educational interests, often through early speciality in a major, however, othertimes through the free choice of courses. This tension has recieved a large amount of coverage in light of Harvard University's reorganization of its core requirements.
For example, in 1999, the University of Chicago announced plans to reduce and modify the content of its core curriculum, including lowering the number of required courses from 21 to 15 and offering a wider range of content. When The New York Times, The Economist, and other major news outlets picked up this story, the University became the focal point of a national debate on education. The National Association of Scholars released a statement saying, "It is truly depressing to observe a steady abandonment of the University of Chicago's once imposing undergraduate core curriculum, which for so long stood as the benchmark of content and rigor among American academic institutions."Simultaneously, however, a set of university administrators, notably then-President Hugo Sonnenschein, argued that reducing the core curriculum had become both a financial and educational imperative, as the university was struggling to attract a commiserate volume of applicants to its undergraduate division compared to peer schools as a result of what was perceived by the pro-change camp as a reaction by, “the average eighteen year old,” to the expanse of the collegiate core.