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U.S. Minority Culture Course Requirement Debated at Penn

U.S. Minority Culture Course Requirement Debated at Penn
Some faculty feel proposed course serves political rather than academic interests
By Ronald Roach

A recently proposed addition to the core arts and science curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania has sparked debate among its administrators and faculty about what should be taught to freshmen and why.

“We went into curriculum [reform] to reduce the number of requirements,” says Dr. Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The idea of adding another requirement has made some faculty nervous.”

The debate stems from a proposal to add a second Cross Cultural Analysis Requirement (CCAR), to the undergraduate core curriculum. The initial CCAR focuses on foreign cultures, but some have argued that minority cultures in the United States should be explored as well. According to DeTurck, some faculty members are hesitant to add another requirement to their students’ course loads. Others, he says, feel the proposed course serves political rather than academic interests.

“The conceptual purview of [the United States Cultural Analysis Requirement] as envisioned thus far [is] much too narrow,” wrote one Penn professor in an op-ed in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the university’s student newspaper.

“Penn, like all great universities, should strive to maintain a competitively determined curriculum, reducing politically determined ‘requirement sprawl’ by avoiding [USCAR]-type meddling whenever possible and instead empowering and encouraging students to make their own informed decisions,” wrote economics professor Dr. Francis X. Diebold in the March 26 article.

While it might appear that the goal of increasing social diversity in the United States and on college campuses has justified the establishment of diversity-focused course requirements, DeTurck says faculty at Penn want requirements to meet a more traditional academic rationale.
“I believe the intellectual argument can be made,” he says, adding that a task force committee is studying the issue and will submit a formal proposal to the faculty sometime this year.

Starting this fall, first-year students in the College of Arts and Sciences will be required to complete a foreign culture class at some point in their college career to meet their CCAR obligation. Faculty approved the requirement last year, but rejected an amendment that would have allowed students to substitute the course with one focused on American minority cultures. Despite rejecting the amendment, which had been proposed by sociology professor Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, the faculty voted to have the issue studied and presented as a second CCAR proposal.  

“What I argued was that this is an uninformed way of looking at ourselves in the world. We need not only study what’s outside this country, but we need to know what’s going on inside the U.S.,” says Zuberi, who is also director of the Center for Africana Studies.

Dr. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University who writes and lectures about contemporary academia and the diversity movement, contends that colleges and universities should design their core requirements to include courses that deliver broadly focused content. For example, he says institutions could offer a history class on African-Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Such a course, he says, could be a model core curriculum program if it explored the broad dynamics of American society as Blacks negotiated their transition from slavery to freedom.

“You can structure the course broadly enough to provide cultural, economic, political and demographic analyses that have a focus on newly freed slaves,” Bauerlein says. “If you had a course that focuses on images of freed slaves in newspapers from the period, that course would be too narrow to be considered a core course. What you want out of a core course is core knowledge.”

He also argues that the most significant failing of core curricula in American colleges and universities is their lack of substantive content. He says core curricula at many institutions often overemphasize critical thinking skills, reflecting the belief that such thinking will allow students to assimilate new knowledge in a rigorous way.

“But if students learn critical thinking, but lack historical, civic and other kinds of knowledge, their capacity is an empty one,” Bauerlein says. “For all the emphasis on critical thinking, it certainly hasn’t made young adults more knowledgeable.”

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