The core curriculum: a continuing conversation
Updated: Feb 4
By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor
As a small, liberal arts and Jesuit institution, the core curriculum — not small class sizes, specific programs or even our chapel — is what distinguishes Canisius from large, research-oriented and secular schools; it also determines how students spend hundreds of hours of our lives and explains why legions of alumni are so successful.
Over the next month, I will look at the recent past, present and future, respectively, of the core. I talk to professors affected by the most recent core reform, speak with the chair of the Core Curriculum Committee and the vice president for Academic Affairs, and I compare our core to those of our local competitors and the 26 other Jesuit institutions.
The use of “I” denotes my attempts at representing the student perspective, though these will likely be obvious enough in comparison with the wisdom of the professors and administrators whose memories I have tested and to whom I am grateful.
This week will focus on the most recent change to the core.
The year was 2005: after four years of flag-rallying and foreign policy fumbles, George W. Bush was sworn into a second term in January. The New England Patriots, four years into the Bill Belicheck era and with a notable lack of fumbles, had just won their second straight Super Bowl in February. And Canisius faculty were mulling a new core curriculum in March.
Two and a half years prior, in November 2002, then–Vice President for Academic Affairs Herbert Nelson ordained a 14-person Core Curriculum Task Force (“CCTF”) to “come to improvements in the curriculum.” Its goal: “to provide increased flexibility for the students.”
Reverend Daniel Jamros, SJ, who chaired the CCTF of 2003-05, recalled that his private goal was “not to reduce the core, but to make it more coherent.” The professor emeritus of religious studies and theology said that, against his wishes, the resultant proposal cut the core without making it any more coherent. Proposed by a single member, the plan was quickly accepted by the CCTF. Happy to have a plan after nearly two years of discussion, the majority thought its task was done.
The previous core required that “each student must select two courses from each of seven of the eight areas, excluding the area related to the major field.” With ENG 101, ENG 102, RST 101 and PHI 101 also required, that was a total of 18 classes. The CCTF proposal would preserve the four introductory classes but only require one course from seven areas and compensate with three additional attributes such as writing, which could be accomplished in classes outside the core. This would reduce the minimum number of core classes from 18 to 13.
Fr. Jamros disliked the core capstone, a new idea contained in the CCTF proposal, because it would leave integration up to the student and postponing it to the end. Nevertheless, he and a few other task force members were outvoted, and the proposal — including the capstone — was taken to the overall Senate.
The proposal was rejected without discussion by a 14–1 vote in the Senate, which at the time was also chaired by Fr. Jamros, but subsequent elections saw pro-reform faculty take a majority. The pro-reform group, calling themselves the “Slate for Constructive Change,” made a pitch and a promise: students would use increased flexibility to dabble in other areas, and faculty wouldn’t add credits to their own major.
There was a great dispute between Slate and non-Slate faculty members; the subsequent maelstrom bewildered Father Jamros, who grew disillusioned with the Senate. Members of the Slate, some of them former CCTF members, defeated all incumbents who ran for reelection. After public hearings — and despite scathing Griffin editorials —, the new Faculty Senate voted for the new Core, largely reflective of the defeated proposal, on March 23, 2007.
In developing the new core proposal, the Senate attempted to preserve a modern language requirement, but it could not reach agreement with the Modern Language Department chair. The end result was the core as it now stands: one course in each of seven fields, one course in each of six attributes and a core capstone. Because the attributes can be accomplished in addition to fields or classes outside the core, the minimum number of courses required to complete the core is 12.
A-core-ding to him…
Given that the Board of Trustees delegates’ power over the core to the Faculty Senate, I was curious why faculty representatives agreed to reduce that part of the curriculum which they control. Father Jamros thought that, while many faculty wanted flexibility, too many of them tended to care more about their own fields of interest than about the whole curriculum. Dr. Thomas Banchich said much the same thing.
The longtime chair of the classics department — which was devastated by cuts to the language requirement of the core — noted that he had more than a few axes to grind and professed great respect for many pro-reform professors. With a knowing smile, Banchich said a few knew exactly what they were doing, but he put most of the blame on well-intentioned ignorance.
Ultimately, a “divide and conquer dynamic” pitted arts and sciences departments against each other for slots in the revised core. While subjects such as philosophy and religion were given their own fields, fine arts courses were merged with English courses in a new “Literature and the Fine Arts” field.
The classics major “wasn’t intended to make classicists.” It was intended to challenge students to think differently and complement other fields of study; medicine, law, philosophy and religion — to name a few of the world’s pursuits — were all influenced greatly by those subjects studied in classics. Many classics students who attended law school and med school did just as well (or better) than their pre-law or pre-medicine peers.
Banchich criticized the tendency of administrators to assume that high school students select a college based on its majors and that the number of incoming majors is a good predictor of usefulness. “Counting majors is an easy way to create a metric for people who don’t understand complexity,” he said. This market-based measurement ignores the value, Banchich explained, of classics and other core fields in procuring “moments of illumination,” in which students gain a new perspective or are inspired to pursue a different career.
Banchich accused admins not of aggression but of a “basic misunderstanding” of the core for orienting Canisius as a professional school, rather than a college with a liberal arts heart. He recounted conversations with administrators in which he would be told, “Nobody could have foreseen” the inflated cost of Science Hall, for example, when in fact many faculty had. He claimed that “decisions were made in the face of faculty with hundreds of years of combined experience by brand-new administrators.”
Commenting on a February 2020 email between President Hurley and the senior leadership team discovered in the lawsuit over that year’s layoffs, Banchich called a credit hour quota articulated by then-VP for Business and Finance Marco Benedetti — 450 per fulltime faculty member — “insane.” “[Benedetti] doesn’t even have the terminology right: … no consideration of scheduling, class availability [or] students who switch majors.”
The interdependence between majors wasn’t considered, Banchich continued, and administrators simply sought an optimal number of faculty based on class size and credits, lopping off the excess number. This led to 2020’s infamous ultimatum to departments: if some don’t retire, the administration will fire. He calls this the “majors game” — a lack of majors leads administration to cut faculty, which leads to less classes and thus less majors, starting the cycle over.
For all his criticism of college leadership, administrators have a built-in bias; they are inclined to view classes through a lens of productivity. He thinks students are incentivized to pursue ever more demanding majors and pre-professional tracks, or else feel like they are not making good use of their education. Throughout our conversation, it was clear that fellow faculty share much of Banchich’s blame.
Though administration and demographics sparked the game, Banchich said, the cuts are the “fault of faculty” — and not just because it’s in their legal domain. He described a narrowing of imagination as departments played turf wars with the core without regard for consequences. Liberal arts departments secured short-term wins for themselves at the cost of a long-term deemphasis on liberal arts. Failing to defend their brothers in arts weakened their position when departments were downsized in 2020.
Majors create major stress
From The Griffin in 2005: “Professor of English Dr. Robert Butler also voiced his concerns about the Task Force’s ideas. He believes that the free electives the CCTF promises will not really be free because students will opt to take more minors and double majors. He also noted that the core curriculum has its own reason for existence, not simply to complement the major as the proposal states.”
The emeritus in his title hasn’t changed Butler’s perspective on those mid-aughts core cuts. Dr. Butler said that as the core decreased, stress increased. A half century passed between the first and last class he taught at Canisius, and he recounted that students in those later years were more prone to depression. “We make kids worry too much about majors, starting in high school,” he said.
He wants Canisius to restore the past core and market it to prospective students. He said Canisius has a responsibility to mold responsible citizens; humanistic education is the seed of a vibrant democracy. “No one ideology dominates the core. … The core is a big dialectic of original minds through history.” Opposition sharpens debate.
Though I’m not sure restoring the old core is feasible, I agree with his emphasis on diversity — not just as an “attribute,” but as a guiding principle for education. The assumption that majors equal marketability ought to be questioned.
The resounding chorus I hear, as a student perusing LinkedIn job openings or attending career fairs, is that employers desire adaptability and communication skills. Though a baseline level of knowledge and competence provide a foot in the door, employers won’t be wowed by an undergraduate level of expertise in any one area. And even if we didn’t derive individual value from it, the core is a boon for society.
Ideas, like people, don’t exist in a vacuum. They derive meaning, as we do, from interaction with others. “Socially responsible individualism,” as Butler put it, requires a recognition of this. That’s why, Dr. Bruce Dierenfield argues, “A society gets what it allows.” We must understand, or try to, the hundred billion humans who have come before us. This perspective may not seem valuable now, but most of us students have just two decades of (questionable) life experience. Leaders — faculty, in this case — “appreciate what’s valuable down the line.”
How can the future of a democracy depend on removing choice from the young? I struggle with this. Here’s how I reconcile it: students simply don’t know what classes would best prepare them for life. Part of what we pay the college for is to provide a purposeful course of instruction, guided by the wisdom of our elders. If we wanted pure choice, we could shirk college and peruse the internet.
Moreover, the core connects the college. Dierenfield pointed out that, without a core, very little would link the schools of business and education to the college of arts and science. As a student, I truly appreciate all that clubs do to bring students together outside of class: the leadership and initiative of my fellow students inspires me. However, what unifies all students is our status as, well, students. Events are voluntary. Classes are not. Classes can and should be the principal focus for connection between students.
Canisius will always be in the Jesuit, liberal arts bubble of higher education, which itself is hardly a cross-section of society. However, we can pursue empathy in that bubble. To better unite the outside world, we should start in our own backyard. The core puts us in the same classrooms, giving us common knowledge and a common experience — even if that experience is homework-filled and stress-inducing.
Without the core, I’d know significantly fewer business and education students. I’m much better off for knowing them, and the world is better off for future business leaders, teachers, bureaucrats and scientists sharing this common connection.
If Canisius, with fewer than 2,000 undergraduates, can’t break silos between professions, bigger schools and the professional world don’t stand a chance. We are — as we’re told — the leaders of tomorrow. If we don’t bond with each other while we’re on the same campus, we certainly won’t when we’re in different, real-world bureaucracies.
Next week: I examine a 2020 Board of Trustees resolution to “streamline” the core and speak with Dr. Stephen Chanderbhan, chair of the Core Curriculum Committee, and Dr. Sara Morris, vice president for academic affairs. Update 2/4/22: Read the second article by clicking here.