Strengthening the Educational Core in Times of Fiscal Restraint


James D. Ryan
Bronx Community College, CUNY

Greetings. I participate in this Association for Core Texts and Courses conference as an ambassador from Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, where I wear several hats. I am, first and foremost, a Professor of History, but I am also Chair of the Department of History, and Coordinator of Humanities (a sort of chair of chairs for six departments). In addition, I have been the elected chairman of the college's Curriculum Committee for 20 of the last 23 years. I am not here as an individual, but as representative of Office of Academic Affairs and of the larger academic community. Like many colleagues at other colleges, we seek to strengthen the educational core required of all students as we assist them in preparation for, or improvement of, their careers. This is an especially serious business for us in CUNY, because we are at present being driven by fiscal exigencies. The City University, whose 21 campuses include a Graduate Center, schools of medicine, law, and social work, 11 four year colleges and 6 community colleges, is in the throes of an ongoing fiscal crisis which promises to result in a down-sizing and reshaping of the institution as a whole. In an effort to conserve fiscal resources, the Board of Trustees of CUNY adopted a number of measures last June, among them a mandate that all baccalaureate curricula be reduced to 120 credits, and all associate degrees to 60. Accordingly, all 23 curricula at Bronx Community College are to be reduced in credits by September, 1996. The past academic year has been one of intense activity for the College's Curriculum Committee, and for its Chairman.

I am not here today to lament this paring down of curricula (on average, by 10%), but to make a brief report on steps taken at my institution to strengthen curricula as they are reduced in credits. Please understand that the mandate to reduce credits is not popular with faculties across the City University. It had been widely condemned as an educationally indefensible attempt to save money by reducing the amount of required instruction, and the leaders of the University Faculty Senate and the faculty union joined forces to initiate a lawsuit to block both the credit reduction and other cost-saving schemes imposed under a declaration of fiscal exigency. Although the lawsuit is still pending, and the order to reduce credits may yet be overturned, the outcome is doubtful and a judicial decision is months, perhaps years, away. Accordingly, each campus has taken steps this year to revise and reduce curricular requirements, in compliance with the Trustees' plan. In view of these facts, it should be crystal clear that we in CUNY have had considerable experience with "fiscal restraint," and I hope my bona fides vis-a-vis this topic have been established. In any case, our experience and the measures we have taken, in the face of intense fiscal pressure, to improve and strengthen our educational core should have some relevance in the discussion this morning.

Over the past two decades Bronx Community College, like many urban two-year colleges, has come to serve, primarily, a nontraditional student population. The vast majority of our students are Hispanic or African Americans, usually the first in their too often poor families to attend college. They are older than traditional college students, seven out of ten are female, and often heads of single parent households. Most come to us with educational deficiencies, and must take remedial courses in one or more of the basic skills (reading, writing, and mathematics) before they are ready for freshman level instruction. Despite this demographic profile and their many disadvantages, our students are highly motivated and hardworking. Although very few achieve a degree in four, or even six, semesters, many persist and ultimately graduate.

Strategies we have adopted to assist them move toward graduation emphasize core requirements, and, indirectly, core texts. During the early 1970's many public colleges, including most units of City University, uncritically imitated prestigious private universities by discarding required courses, replacing them with broad baskets of electives from which students could create their own curricula. The Bronx Community College resisted this trend, and opened its curricula only partially. We retained a relatively high percentage of required courses, particularly on what was, traditionally, the freshman level. To cite a few examples: the English requirement was reduced to two semesters, one of composition, a second of literature; the requirement in Western Civilization was reduced to one semester; and a year of speech became one term of Communications. This allowed students to
select from an expanded array of elective courses to complete their degree requirements, but a solid, if diminished, core of required courses was maintained. This may not sound especially conservative today, when many institutions are moving to reinstitute core courses and prescriptive requirements, but in the context of the early 1970's, Bronx appeared very conservative indeed.

These half measures operated to our advantage in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Because there was some continuity between the former, more rigorous, curriculum, and the new, as incoming freshmen manifested less and less readiness for traditional college level work, we were able to document the decline in average levels of preparedness. This both facilitated the maintenance of standards for student performance and demonstrated weaknesses in reformed curricula. As minimalist architectural facades will crack if too weak to stand up to dynamic stress, curricula without a solid educational core began to manifest weaknesses, and moves to shore up the core and to make it more prescriptive won general acceptance. The Associate of Arts transfer curriculum was reformed in 1987 by removing electives and adding required courses. A few years later (1992) the college community reached consensus on a solid general education core for AAS programs, and although there was no wide-spread overhaul of career curricula at that time, rubrics were established to govern the creation of future curricula and revisions of existing ones. These guidelines have determined reshaping our curricula this academic year.

These steps could be taken at my college because years of sometimes contentious, but always collegial, debate resulted in a shared conviction concerning the worth of an educational core. Despite individual differences, there was general agreement that a solid core was particularly important for students lacking a firm educational foundation for college work. We agreed upon and affirmed the value of courses which fostered acquaintance with texts and ideas central to the heritage of a liberal education, that they must be protected in curricula where they still existed, and reinstated where they had disappeared. In open debate the majority was led to affirm the value of an educational core because it promotes broad and rigorous exposure to major areas of knowledge. The faculty affirmed the core's relevance because it both gives students a vocabulary of textual references which will facilitate access to the literary canon, and engender critical thinking skills which are the chief object of a liberal education. In reporting this I do not mean to imply that each faculty member, or the majority in each academic department, would embrace all these sentiments without reservation, but in the fullness of time the weightier part of the academic community was firmly on board, and opposition to strengthening the core became occasional muttering.

With this as background, what have we done in this year? There are two items that seem relevant to our discussion today. One is our pattern for curricular revision, which places emphasis on core texts across the curriculum, which might be replaceable at other institutions. If this scheme proves successful it will give existing core courses greater cohesion and educational relevance. The second is a strategy within a single department to bringing core texts into the curriculum "on the cheap."

The plan to add greater cohesion to the core was created in meetings of humanities division personnel, who agonized over the fate of hard-won curricular reforms in the Associate of Arts transfer program in the face of a ukase, that credits be reduced from 66 to 60. Because there were virtually no electives left in the AA program, a reduction in credits would have to come from "bone," not "fat." Trying to make a virtue of necessity, it was decided that, although literature and social science requirements must be trimmed, each candidate for graduation would have to present a transcript showing that at least two courses completed were "enhanced." Specifically, one course in their freshmen year would have been designated as "writing enhanced," that is, having as an additional component expanded writing assignments; and one course, taken after 30 credits, would be "content enhanced," that is, having additional readings and assignments to refine critical thinking skills. Such courses might originate in any area of the humanities, and each department immediately began to generated candidates for the designation "enhanced," with appropriate activities for students enrolled in them. Needless to say, core texts, and assignments based on readings in the literary canon, play a significant role in the development of "enhanced" courses.

The second strategy was developed within my own department, History, several years ago, as part of the broader effort to preserve educational standards and assist students to prepare for the rigors of either additional education or their personal career ladders. During the 1970's, when the curricula at Bronx were opened up at the expense of the core, only a single semester of History was mandated in the college's curricula. For this requirement a new course, "History of the Modern World," covering the period from the Industrial Revolution to the present, was created. In designing it the History Department was very prescriptive. Because many sections of this important core requirement were taught by adjunct, part-time, instructors, a departmental syllabus was created, as well as a departmental portion for the final exam, to ensure uniformity of educational standards. There was a problem, however, arising from the lack of a satisfactory text. Because no single text addressed the departmental outline we had developed for the course, there was perennial dissatisfaction with whatever text the department, acting as a committee of the whole, adopted. In the early 1980's text deficiencies were remedied by the creation of an in-house, primary source reader, with appropriate introductory passages. The reader, which is published at modest cost to students, is assigned in the syllabus, and gives the department a continuity which might otherwise be lacking as text books come and go every two years.

It is the access to core texts which the reader affords, however, rather than the stability it provides, which makes this text relevant to our discussion this morning. With your indulgence, I will focus on one lesson by way of illustration. Every text covering the modern world spends time on intellectual circumstances framing the Industrial Revolution, but few quote at any length the thinkers who framed the debate over classical liberalism and socialism. The reader we use includes relevant and illustrative passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations , Sadler's Report on Child Labor , Marx's Communist Manifesto , and Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism . Students derive considerable advantage from reading and studying primary sources, passages from core texts themselves, through which they are exposed to great ideas that have shaped the modern world. Such exposure brings more than enlightenment. Students gain both insight and confidence as they approach the ideas of great thinkers through their own words. In the best tradition of liberal education, such encounters are truly liberating and empowering, and provide a solid basis for students' further growth and intellectual development.

Although my remarks this morning have had rather more to do with core courses than core texts, I believe that these topics are virtually inseparable. As students work their way through required, general course work in traditional areas of inquiry, they should be, and generally are, exposed to the core of texts and ideas which are at the center of a liberal education. As they work through any sensible curriculum they will visit and revisit the same texts and thinkers during their freshmen and sophomore years, and beyond. At Bronx Community College we have made it our task to ensure that effective and meaningful early contact with core texts is made in core courses. I hope you will approve, but if you do not, I am prepared to argue the point in discussion to follow, without rancor or contention, and, should my conception be demonstrated wrong, with eagerness to learn. It was argument of this kind that won core courses and core texts greater prominence in the curriculum of Bronx Community College. I wish no less for the collective entity we call academe.