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Capping the Core

The final in a series of articles about the core curriculum. Read the first by clicking here, the second by clicking here, and the third by clicking here.


In 2015, a Core Capstone Subcommittee — which reported to the Core Curriculum Committee, at the time chaired by Father Patrick Lynch — unanimously approved 10 proposals to reform the core capstone. Most were related to administrative clarifications or a new name for the capstone: the “senior mission seminar.” One would have made students complete all four knowledge attributes — diversity, ethics, global awareness and justice — before enrolling in the capstone.

Father Lynch, in a conversation with The Griffin, recalls that the most contentious was a proposal to “team teach” the capstone. For example, a biology and political science professor could team up to teach a class on environmental policy. Unless faculty split their pay or one of the professors taught the class for free, the proposal would not have been supported by administration, who were unwilling to pay two faculty to teach a single class, and faculty (for obvious reasons) were understandably opposed to unpaid work.

The Academics Committee of the Board of Trustees had separately called for a capstone with “more meaning and coherence;” one that “meaningfully emphasizes the importance of the core and distinguishes a Canisius education.” The capstone subcommittee, in their 2016 report, reported that they “had — surprisingly — come to many of the same conclusions that the Trustees had, before the Trustees even voiced those concerns.”

The subcommittee also noted that the current capstone “seems to be more of a major’s course than a core course. … It tries to be too many things to too many people.” Father Lynch, who provided the report and agrees with the subcommittee’s sentiments, also argues that the four attributes are not covered well in the capstone, as they are supposed to be.

“Good enough”

Despite his misgivings over the capstone and his disappointment over departmental battles which hamper the core, Father Lynch said the overall core is “good enough.” Likening the core to a logarithmic curve, the professor emeritus of religious studies and theology said it “won’t achieve perfection outside of the second coming of Christ.”

That seems to be the Board of Trustees’s position, too. When I asked Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Sara Morris about who would run the core if the Board, as they threatened in 2020, decided to revoke power over the core from the faculty, she dismissed the possibility of a switch at all.

“I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. And let me say, I don’t think that there is. … I don’t think the Board is interested in doing that. I’m not trying to evade the question, I just don’t think it’s something that I need to be prepared for because I just don’t think it’s going to be happening.”

After the current core passed in 2007, a self-styled “hater of the new core curriculum” who had recently dropped her biology major wrote in The Griffin that without the strong core, “You’d probably see me living in a box next to the Peter Canisius statue. … What’s going to happen in three years when a sophomore has an academic crisis and a poor core curriculum to fall back on?”

15 years on, that seems a little apocalyptic. Anecdotally, the Peter Canisius statue is box free. Statistically, retention and graduation rates have remained fairly stable since 2007. One virtue of the new core is that students suffering from academic crises can take up to 18 courses that count for core credit, while those with a major and a mission can — with careful planning — complete the core in just a dozen classes.

Many of us complain that schools don’t teach us practical skills such as paying taxes. An unintended benefit of the new core is that its attribute system teaches us to prize credits and seek exemptions. The various levels of requirements simulate the complex interaction between local, state and federal taxes (and in this metaphor, courses that count for both field and attribute credit are like state and local tax deductions).

Anyway: the core is restricted by resources and reality. It’s messy, yes, but so is life. If nothing else, the core teaches us time management. Students who plan ahead are rewarded with fewer classes that they don’t want to take, because they can register for courses which fill both types of attribute — knowledge- and skill-based — and maybe even a field requirement, too.

Speaking of money, students and their parents tend to view college as a transaction. I asked Dr. Robert Butler, the only member of the 2007 Faculty Senate to vote against the new core, how the core can survive in that economics-oriented atmosphere. Butler responded rhetorically: “Why have breakfast when you could have all three meals?” Or, the core can complement professional training while still being independently valuable.

Fearing that humanities degrees don’t offer immediately marketable skills, too many students choose a degree that they end up hating as an adult. Interests of youth fade and technologies evolve. Specific degrees are risky; career changes — happening more than ever — could render them useless.

The core, I think, is often criticized as expensive, impractical and unenjoyable because it doesn’t seem to yield immediately marketable skills, and we have to spend time learning Shakespeare instead of getting a jump on what we think we want to do with our lives. The reverse is true.

Not having a core is expensive because we are paying thousands to gain experience that could become irrelevant the year we graduate; impractical because by prioritizing solely career-oriented classes we are spending four years of our youth doing things we will do the rest of our lives; and unenjoyable because, though we may prefer classes that we find innately interesting — especially after getting through high school on the promise of “in college you get to choose your classes” — they quickly grow old as we face the prospect of graduation.

We’re young. We have a lifetime of knowledge and experience in front of us. After graduation, we face four decades or more of specialization. Treating our four undergraduate years as “work lite” is expensive, impractical and unenjoyable. Instead, we should try to “learn to learn.” Learning to learn is a much more malleable skill, and one that we don’t have much time for once we enter the workforce and gain more responsibilities.

Final thoughts

In my experience, there is a very high correlation between students who expect a tangible good from college and students who are disillusioned with their college experience. I’m a lot happier now than I was when I first came to Canisius, despite taking a lower proportion of classes in my initial major.

“Reading Shakespeare is a waste of time,” I told myself in freshman year, fretting about missing out on a critical piece of political knowledge that surely, I believed, campaign managers or bureaucratic bosses had never heard before. While I was studying the varying styles of representation and essaying about the necessity of cooperation between different cultures, I failed to apply those same democratic principles to myself, on the individual level.

Part of why we value democracy is because it takes into account various professions, skill sets and knowledge bases. Different fields have different methods and assumptions which, I’ve found, have as much claim to the truth as my own. Knowledge becomes more nuanced and more personal when I have to defend it — even if just to myself — in different contexts.

The core, in permitting the ethics attribute, for example, to be taken in so many subjects, demonstrates that the same questions frustrate many fields. Yet it also encourages us to learn under different kinds of professors, who all espouse different assumptions about the world. The core’s requirements are confusing and manipulatable, but new technology (like GriffAudit) goes a long way to fixing the former, and as for the latter, students are less likely to resent the core if we can control it to some extent.

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time and column inches just to come to a conclusion likely shared by most of the college. Why write all this now, when there are no efforts to reform the core? The core will always be important. As my predecessor Christina Pinzone put it in 2007, “The core curriculum should be a rock at the center of a quality education at any college or university, refusing to shift with the winds of academic trends.”

There will always be those who see that rock not as a stepping stone, but a barrier. That’s why I’ve dedicated so much space to the core. When the Faculty Senate was voting on the new Core in spring 2007, Griffin readers were subjected to months of editorials, faculty letters to the editor and student opinion pieces decrying the reform, but a few months of belated editorials were always unlikely to overturn years of debate.

As I’ve learned from presidential primaries, the first to speak often has the most say. My purpose in this series was to provide context so that students know why past changes were made, as well as a student perspective for faculty to turn to before the process even starts, rather than after five years of committee work.

It appears that the core is locked into place, but consensuses change. In 2020, tenure turned tenuous. The faculty control the core and their handbook. Whether that still holds completely true for the latter is currently under review by Judge Emilio Colaiacovo at Erie County Supreme Court. While the administration provides a convenient common enemy for the moment, a new president and the faculty’s arguably halved power could make the core again an obvious flashpoint.

Like the international order currently being tested by Russia, the path to the current core has been messy: filled with faculty firings, departmental deaths and scathing prose in this paper. The result — like the nation-state system — is messy, filled with contradictions and confusions. It’s probably also the best we have, unless attitudes among prospective students change or President-elect Steve Stoute brings DePaul’s $1 billion endowment with him.

I’m now done with this series, and I’m a capstone away from finishing my own path in the core. Both of these give me the confidence to say it simply: keep this core. I appreciate the efforts of the Core Curriculum Committee in updating its objectives, and I hope its centrality to our education won’t get lost in the shuffle when we inaugurate Mr. Stoute or if we become Canisius “University.” Partly with those concerns in mind, next week in this space will be a discussion with President John Hurley about the possibility of shedding our collegiate label.

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