Blogs > Cliopatria > Teaching Africa I: The Problem of a Core Curriculum

Feb 11, 2005 6:11 pm


Teaching Africa I: The Problem of a Core Curriculum



Ross Douthat’s article in the current Atlantic Monthly, drawn from his forthcoming critique of Harvard and other elite universities, aligns pretty closely with some of Gerald Graff’s criticisms of undergraduate curricula that I’ve praised elsewhere, though Douthat tries to see the problem from the student perspective.

The picture offered is of a four-year course of study that has no center or core, where students learn very little in common save for some general skills and a certain kind of shared glibness, where courses have little planned or intentional connections to each other. It’s a picture that other critics of academia have drawn over the years. Douthat’s portrait is more nuanced and less ideological, and so all the more uncomfortable to read. He describes Harvard students who may have individual courses in the humanities and the social sciences that they enjoyed and found highly memorable, but these courses seemingly connect to nothing besides themselves. Intellectually, the course materials create no shared foundation among graduates.

I’m a little leery of some versions of the complaint, the ones that tend to assume the coherence or virtue, the shared assumptions, of some idealized past moment in higher education or American culture (e.g., Arthur Schlesinger). I’m concerned that even Douthat, whose views I’m fairly sympathetic to, tends to assume that there is some obvious body of knowledge that all students should know and to which they have not been sufficiently exposed.

Every time that academics who are broadly sympathetic to the idea of creating an educational core program get together to actually design it, they find that it is a genuinely difficult and vexing thing to do. To some extent, you become aware that if colleges and universities had that core in the past, it is because they were blithely ignorant (or brutally suppressive) of the possible challenges and complications to their core program. Now takes a kind of arbitrariness to sustain something like St. John’s College’s “Great Books” program, a willingness to just declare by fiat that certain texts are and shall always be the core, so there.

How would I deal with the problem, if I wanted to help fix the problems Douthat identifies? Perhaps each faculty member in an institution could take on the responsibility of sorting their own courses into “core” courses and courses which simply use an interesting topic to explore and master critical thinking, where any subject matter can be substituted as long as the pedagogy is sufficiently engaging. I think we need both kinds of courses, but the key difference is that courses in the second category are more or less interchangeable: anything will do the trick, and thus the only important thing is to have an adequate supply of them.

My own teaching tends to break into three Africa-related courses a year and two more thematic courses on other topics, such as the history of consumption and commodities or (my favorite course) the intellectual and cultural history of the concept of “the future”. Of my Africa courses, some would be substantially about “core” concerns , but most others would be decidedly not so. In this entry, I want to describe which subjects in African history belong in the “core” and then explore the practical difficulties this raises.

Core topics are courses that you think ought to be a part of the shared knowledge of every educated person. Of necessity, that means every specialist has to be highly parsimonious about what they put forward as “core” knowledge. It also means that academics have to take on the burden of being literate about the entirety of the core themselves: you can’t ask your students to do something you won’t do yourself.

African history in the core:
1)The role of African societies in the premodern world trade system
2) The role of African societies in the evolution of the Atlantic slave trade, the nature of slavery within African societies, and the impact of the African slave trade on African societies
3) The nature, causes and effects of modern imperialism within Africa
4) The relation of contemporary African societies to globalization, liberalism, modernity


That’s it as I see it. There are a zillion other things which are interesting about African history, and I’ll turn to those in a subsequent entry. But if any kind of return to a core curriculum is going to work, all faculty are going to have to abandon their usual epistemological quibblings and special-case pleadings, their investments in specialization.

Of these core subjects, I think 1) can be dealt with in a highly compact manner, with relatively little direct address to African history per se. (Say, in a single course lccture on the premodern world system circa 1300 CE.) 2) is huge, and I basically built one course out of my three-course survey sequence around it. 3) is also huge, but potentially could be folded into a more sweeping course on European imperialism, comparative modern history, or something similar. 4) can be done in a huge variety of ways, I think, and at various scales of detail.

Look how messy this is in practice. I’m one faculty member. Here I’ve just defined my subject matter in relationship to a core curriculum in such a way as to have a stake in the design of as many as three courses. Students at our institution take five courses a year on average, 40 courses in their total time here. Am I seriously saying that my own specialized subject matter might need space in three required or core courses? I could teach a single survey of African history to cover this all, but for various reasons, I think that’s a very poor strategy, not the least because it then isolates"Africa" from some connected understanding of the core.

Moreover, that doesn’t solve the overall problem: then my department would have nine courses, one from each of us, that reflected our sense of the “core” concerns arising from our specialization.

The alternative is to make the nine of us design a class that squeezes all of our nominations for the core into a single course or possibly two, some form of a world history survey. I have seen very few such courses that did not seem to me to be a frankensteinian hodgepodge, a quick guided tour of the highlights of contemporary historiography, and most of those that avoid the trap of trying to be all things to all specialists end up being horribly bland as an alternative.

The best possibility I can imagine is perhaps three courses that have some tighter thematic and temporal coherence to them, courses that are built around densely packed “core” themes and questions. Perhaps one on the Atlantic system, mercantilism and the industrial revolution; one on the premodern world system and comparative state formation; one on modernity, globalization and the 20th Century. That’s still three classes you’d be insisting every student would have to take in order to achieve a general standard of common knowledge about history. Note too here that you’d have to deal with the entirely valid separate argument that perhaps college students studying the United States ought to have to take a course on American history in specific. Multiply that by the number of departments at my college or any other and once again you’ve broken the curricular bank.

In practice, if you want a core curriculum that includes history, and you don’t want to go the route of having a bland, overarcing (or crazy-quilt assemblage) single world history course, you’re still going to have a situation where students will have to choose one core course from a set of three or so, and thus a situation where students are graduating without some knowledge that you might feel a well-educated population should share in common.

I agree with Douthat that there’s incoherence and dilettantism in the curricula of many selective colleges and universities. I don’t think that stems entirely from a lack of interest or willpower on the part of faculty. A new core program of studies, if we deemed it desirable, would be very hard to construct even if every faculty member willingly and generously pitched in to build it.

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L Jean Camp - 2/16/2005

So you propose a methodological core: this is the way that biology searches for truth; here is how history engages in that search and here are the qual and quant approaches of the social sciences. It is also a way to bring the sciences back into the core of the liberal arts in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that such a core would lead to a more informed electorate. As far more than this blog illustrates, our citizenry is scientifically illiterate. “Evolution is a theory” as a battle cry, for example, requires a gross misunderstanding of science.

It seems better than a classical intro course because the applications in almost any area could be taken from the NYTimes (or whatever paper you like) so the immediacy of the content could be maintained.

That is an interesting approach because each faculty could bring their own topical applications to the course, instead of "this is intro to X'. Intro to methods, using Africa as the application and Intro to methods using Europe as the application could be offered in different semesters.

The problem for many areas; however, is that the students are innumerate. So much of the world of the academy is closed to them in terms of methods. Yet that does not mean courses could not be designed to introduce them to the concepts. You could have physics for poets the introduces the Elegant Universe without requiring the rigorous mathematics.

I applaud this idea as truly innovative. I hope it is not forgotten in the next round of the arguments over the core.

-Jean
not a historian, thanks for the opportunity.


L Jean Camp - 2/16/2005

So you propose a methodological core: this is the way that biology searches for truth; here is how history engages in that search and here are the qual and quant approaches of the social sciences. It is also a way to bring the sciences back into the core of the liberal arts in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that such a core would lead to a more informed electorate. As far more than this blog illustrates, our citizenry is scientifically illiterate. “Evolution is a theory” as a battle cry, for example, requires a gross misunderstanding of science.

It seems better than a classical intro course because the applications in almost any area could be taken from the NYTimes (or whatever paper you like) so the immediacy of the content could be maintained.

That is an interesting approach because each faculty could bring their own topical applications to the course, instead of "this is intro to X'. Intro to methods, using Africa as the application and Intro to methods using Europe as the application could be offered in different semesters.

The problem for many areas; however, is that the students are innumerate. So much of the world of the academy is closed to them in terms of methods. Yet that does not mean courses could not be designed to introduce them to the concepts. You could have physics for poets the introduces the Elegant Universe without requiring the rigorous mathematics.

I applaud this idea as truly innovative. I hope it is not forgotten in the next round of the arguments over the core.

-Jean
not a historian, thanks for the opportunity.


Carl Patrick Burkart - 2/12/2005

I think the problem with history classes in the core curriculumn is that there is no real intro to history course. Instead, first year students are treated to impossibly broad surveys. Some professors make an attempt to include a discussion of methodology, sources, and interpretation in their courses, but this has to be secondary to covering hundreds of years in a semester. This is a mistake. Surveys should become upper level courses that students only take after they have been introduced to how we know about the past. A course that gave examples of the sources, methodology, and intrepretations in different subfields of history (economic, social, poltical, cultural etc.) would better prepare students to critically engage narratives and arguments about the past. Alternatively, the intro course could be a historiography course, beginning with Herodotus, going through the professionalization of history in the late 19th century, the mid-20th century annalist school, the post 1960 explosion of theory, and the return of the narrative.

If students are only to take one history course, it is more important to teach them this kind of stuff, showing them the process, rather that the current result of historiographical investigation.


Michael C Tinkler - 2/11/2005

*sigh*

Despite the beautiful weather I'm currently (17:24 EST, 2/11/05) at a pessimistic trough on the sine curve of curriculum. I don't know what to do or even what I *want* from a curriculum this week.

We just had a very polite discussion inside my deparment that began with prerequisites for 200 level courses and ended up revealing that some of us really believe in teaching utterly atomistic courses (anyone at all can and should sign up for any course at all in Art History in any particular term) while some of us are constructing little sequences of courses here and there. It's a microcosm of the whole educational shebang.

It's after 5. I think I'm having a drink. I'll go read the Douthat later when I feel up to it :)


Timothy James Burke - 2/11/2005

Yes, I think this is exactly right. In practical terms, your proposed solution is what I'd actually like to see happen, because I think a core curriculum of the kind Douthat pines for is ultimately impossible. This is what I understood Graff to be arguing for (among other things) in his book Clueless in Academe: courses which have an incredibly explicit, spelled-out, constantly discussed sense of their relationship to other courses. I think that's the real source of the issues that Douthat describes: not the lack of a core curriculum, but just a kind of abdication on the part of faculty of their responsibility to explain why their courses exist and how their courses relate to the courses of others. So we get a curriculum by default rather than intent.

My colleage in economics teaches a very great class called "The World According to Economics" that I think achieves this goal very well--it explains how his discipline looks at a range of issues and then contrasts that against how those same issues look from within other disciplines. That's a formal way to accomplish this, but the acceptable minimum ought to be that in every single class we teach, "core" or not, we are always trying to make explicit the relation between what we teach and what others teach.


Caleb McDaniel - 2/11/2005

Thanks for this very interesting response to Douthat's article.

It seems to me that for all disciplines, but especially for history, a key critical skill is learning to construct some general guidelines for significance and then to be selective on the basis of those guidelines. It seems to me that there is a "teachable moment" even in the decisions we make about what to teach. Perhaps we should be more open with our students about this process going on in our heads about what constitutes a "core" and what constitutes a "periphery." After all, learning that cores and peripheries are contingent things is one of the main things we want our students to be aware of; perhaps we should show them how contingent those concepts are even in curricular decision-making. Involve them, in other words, in our dilemmas.

Since, as you point out, even covering a minimal definition of "core" knowledge in a particular field quickly multiplies courses beyond the bounds of practicality, the best thing we can do, perhaps, is constantly to gesture beyond the boundaries of the courses we teach. Since we recognize that we can't educate students in one course about everything relevant to a subject, our goal should at least be to inspire their education to continue. I feel like I will have succeeded if I get a student to pick up a book on my subject after the course has ended; indeed, this would be a greater success than cramming as much as possible into the bounds of the course. That's one of the things that bothered me about Douthat's article: it seems to give short-shrift to the necessarily auto-didactic dimension of even the most comprehensive higher education.

Of course, all of this still might not satisfy Douthat, or those who already have a predefined "core" that they take to be an atomic basis for all other knowledge.


Jonathan Dresner - 2/11/2005

I'm heartened to realize that my World History course (two semesters) actually fulfills your minimal requirements for topical coverage (it is going to fall short on depth, I'm sure) of Africa (I think I'm a bit weak on #4, though, which I'll have to address).

I'm not convinced, though, that World History is a bad way to fulfill the core. A properly inclusive approach to history -- economics, politics, society (including race and gender and class, yes, as well as public spheres, families, education, and the relationship of all the other issues to real people's lives), culture, religion, science and technology, etc. -- is as close to a solid core as anyone could hope for. The main problem is that it's generally not taken seriously as a course, because it is taught in one or two semesters as a large class (mostly by adjunct faculty) as the "least boring option" (that's a checkbox on my early semester "why are you taking this course" form) which fits around the pre-career courses students think is a "real" education.

Now a World History course taught over three or four semesters (I'd prefer four, myself), with regular appearances by faculty specialists (why should the historians have to do all the heavy lifting?) in small classes with strong discussion and writing components.... that might be a liberal education core worth having.

As things stand now, I can't even get faculty in related fields to invite me in to their classes to give some historical perspective, nor do I have the time in my surveys to bring in specialists to do things in serious depth.

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