Core Values

CUNY’s Curriculum Debate

Watching Herman Badillo and Bernard Sohmer debate the merits and minuses of instituting an intensified core curriculum at CUNY was a little like watching a game of three-card monte. During their July 12 forum at Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel, I was never quite sure where the point was, and just when I thought I'd found it, I'd lose it again in a shuffle of double-talk. Badillo is chairman of CUNY's board of trustees. Sohmer, a professor of mathematics, is chair of CUNY's University Faculty Senate. Badillo wants a core curriculum, though at this point he's only proposing the "idea" of a core curriculum. He hasn't yet said what he thinks it should contain. But the very mention of a core has Sohmer and his contingent protesting. So, you see, the whole rumpus is about the mere suggestion of an idea, which means that the two sides are arguing over something they haven't even defined. It's bureaucracy at its most Kafkaesque.

At bottom, though, both sides know what they're referring to without referring to it. Essentially, Badillo wants CUNY students to learn the straight stuff: American history, math, English, science, economics. In his July 25 column for this paper, Nat Hentoff gave a passionate and sensible argument for Badillo's side. Sohmer's case is much less clear-cut. He's against a core because he doesn't think it matters what students learn, but how they learn. "Factoids," as he so contemptuously refers to the proverbial basic things every kid should know, are useless. "Ways of knowing" are what it's all about—whatever that means.

"It means race, class, and gender," says Cooper Union professor of history Fred Siegel. "Sohmer is yoking together epistemological uncertainty with political certainty. It's a way of sneaking in a political agenda without appearing to do so."

Decoded, this means that Sohmer et al. think that knowledge can't be prioritized, because, in a multicultural world, no kind of knowledge is necessarily more valuable than another. Who has the right, says Sohmer, to mandate that American history is more important than say, Indian architecture? Eurocentrists, that's who, and we all know what the academy thinks of them. So, as Siegel says, what it really comes down to is the left's all too familiar distaste for dead white male imperialists. But that's only the blatant part of it. According to Siegel, there's a seedy underbelly.

"The way CUNY works now is the way Congress does highway legislation. Once you get past all the philosophical rigmarole, what decides who gets what is a kind of pork-barrel process inside the university. What you really have is, Who gets to decide what kind of courses get taken? And that in turn decides how much money is given to the department. There's enormous self-interest here. These people make their careers by teaching race, class, and gender. They don't want to have to teach Chaucer."

So, as Siegel sees it, it's not just that CUNY profs want to teach what interests them—the same non-Western, nonwhite, progressive-minded material they're publishing with Routledge—it's also that their departments will get more money to teach it if they can edge out the boring old crusty courses like Western Civ. The irony of all this, Siegel thinks, is that while Sohmer and company say they're concerned about the students—especially the disadvantaged immigrants and/or students of color of which CUNY is largely composed—the curriculum they're pushing won't be of much practical help to them in the real world. If anything, it will probably be a hindrance.

These people aren't, after all, attending CUNY to wander barefoot through the theoretical lilies, or to have their ethnic backs patted. CUNY is probably their last and only chance to learn the basic skills that will get them higher-paying jobs and a ticket out of the very ghettos (physical, epistemological, or ideological) to which Sohmer's crew seems to want to confine them.

To make it into the white-collar professions—which are, as lefties are always pointing out, abysmally understaffed by minorities—you need semi-advanced math, logical reasoning, English vocabulary, reading comprehension, and good study habits. That's what's required to pass the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT, much less survive in business school, law school, and medical school. Meanwhile, those nebulous, oh-so-advanced "ways of knowing" are likely to keep you driving a cab or flipping burgers for the rest of your life.

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