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Corn: State universities should get back to core learning
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When my father attended the University of Georgia in the 1960s, Dean Tate still knew every young man on campus by his first name. Alas, my recent visits reveal hallways that have all the warmth of a check-in counter at the airport, and the administrators are known, if at all, for their absence from student life.

In my years at UGA, I cannot recall once seeing any member of this elusive administrative priesthood. The campus seems a factory distantly managed by an agency. That bustling impersonal ambience of a public transport terminal is the absolute worst in a place of higher learning.

In the face of such cultural degradation, I feel we must take every opportunity to increase the common experience and social unity of our graduates, especially at moments like this, while the winds of change are blowing and the state’s deficit (reportedly $220 million) makes money saving ideas all the more appealing. I have just such a proposal: Reform the system by reinstating a core curriculum at our public universities.

It is clear from the mission statement of our board of regents that the university system is now charged with far too many responsibilities. It seems that research and technological progress, international public relations, social equality and economic development are all found under its list of duties. Why not send the bulldog Uga on a lunar mission while we’re at it?

The mission statement includes only two sentences about teaching and learning, but not one specific subject requirement that all students must master. That stark lack of focus is a serious problem. An institution that comes at massive cost to taxpayers ($500 million annually) and employs more than 13,000 people should be able to state clearly what knowledge all students, regardless of major, will share upon completion of their coursework.

But why have students study the same things?

A communal base of knowledge enables educated people a starting point for conversation about all aspects of society. It makes communication between such people more pleasant, efficient, and even more meaningful by adding depth. A university can be, and has been for much of Western history, a place where people go to learn a common language, literature, history and also receive an overview of civilization. The key word here is common, as in knowledge in common.

The other major task of higher education is to train the mind. In his treatise on the American university, "The House of Intellect," Jacques Barzun tells us that intelligence is native to the individual, but intellect must be developed through study, practice, and application. A functioning university must also do this basic work of development. Done well, it hones a certain set of skills in addition to introducing a base of common knowledge.

Unless you count memorizing football scores, our university system today does little to give students a common knowledge base. By the way, football tickets for students are no longer free.

What is freely available to students is an overwhelming selection of "core" classes, 300 to be precise. Not only is this a disservice to the students and society at large, it is also extremely costly to employ so many professors to teach the ever-growing selection.

Reinstating a true core curriculum, which means offering a common sequence of classes for all, would come with a huge savings to taxpayers. We can argue at length about what the core courses should be and what they should cover, but to keep the current system will only bring further fragmentation and disunity of our society.

To bring home the urgency of the situation I mention one striking example. I recently met two UGA linguistics graduates who were unable to speak any foreign language. I remind the reader that for most of our history, even in times before such technological advances as electricity or running water, all educated people were expected to be at least bilingual. Men of the church were required to know Latin, Greek and sometimes Hebrew in addition to their native language.

The fact that our new linguistics major (a language specialist!) cannot converse in any foreign tongue is truly pathetic. But all is not lost.

In Jacob Burckhardt’s "Judgments on History" he tells us, "The University of Paris opposed the Jesuits not merely because they were from abroad but because they competed with those in salaried posts at the University by offering education for free. It is not hard for firmly united, clever, and courageous men to do great things in the world. Ten such men affect 100,000."

A university system of great purpose and power requires the will to deconstruct the current dysfunctional conglomerate and rebuild a more focused institution. I hope for such consensus one day, but for the moment we can take a simple step toward reform by allowing freshmen and sophomores two years of serious study on common coursework.

And why not allow students free tickets again, too!

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and area resident whose columns appear frequently.

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