Pathways to a Common Core

There is a great deal of controversy within the City University of New York over its “Pathways” initiative, an attempt to establish a system-wide flexible core of courses for students during their first two undergraduate years. Most of the controversy has to do with process–with how Pathways was conceived, structured, and introduced. Faculty see it as an imposition from the administration, when the appropriate way of approaching the possibility would have been through faculty governance structures. The result is a poorly thought structure that will be a nightmare to institute–something that could have been avoided had the administration enough confidence in the faculty to simply suggest a possibility and then listen and respond as the faculty developed a workable program–something the faculty as a whole can do but that the administration, which hasn’t the day-to-day connection with courses and academic program implementation, cannot.

Still, the idea behind Pathways is a good one–better, probably, than even its backers at the top of the CUNY central administration realize. It harkens back to attempts to establish an undergraduate foundation not governed by “disciplines,” something that C. P. Snow pines for in The Two Cultures and that Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler suggest (and that is still found in St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD), though without the slavish devotion to an antiquated body of knowledge.

It is just possible that someone behind the program recognized that devotion to the disciplines is so strong within the faculty that it was unlikely that anything that could possibly be seen as a threat to the little kingdoms would not be rejected out of hand–so thought to bypass that possibility completely. The result, however, is a timid and tepid program that will probably do no one any good (in terms of their education) but that will throw the entire system into chaos. The faculty may be petty at times, but its input could certainly have averted what is now a looming disaster. The faculty could have made a good idea realizable instead of, as we face now, creating a weak reflection of a good idea that will be next to meaningless even if it succeeds.

One of the cornerstones of Pathways is a “Flexible Core” of five areas:

  • World Cultures and Global Issues;
  • U.S. Experience in its Diversity;
  • Creative Expression;
  • Individual and Society; and
  • Scientific World.

Students will be expected to take six courses to meet the core requirement, including one in each of these areas with the proviso that they can take no more than two in any single discipline. Courses will be placed in particular areas at the request of individual colleges and approval by a system-wide Pathways committee. Qualification will depend on compatibility with ‘learning outcomes’ specific to each area. The areas, taken together, are expected to provide a common foundation for students moving on into their specialized majors.

The areas, and the ‘learning outcomes’ that define them, were created by a committee formed and tasked by the administration, though it was made up of faculty members. According to one of them, they didn’t even really understand the purpose of what they were doing until far along in the process. In other words, the faculty did not create this but simply did administration bidding.

When I attended the first meeting of another system-wide committee, the one that is asked to decide if courses belong in the areas proposed for them by individual colleges (I am also on its “Individual and Society” subcommittee), a number of questions were raised by faculty to administrators who were really running the meeting (though there was a bow to faculty governance, a chair of the whole from the faculty). One of these used the example of an introductory Economics course, of the sort taught at almost all colleges. What would happen, the administrators were asked, if one college would place this course in “Individual and Society” and another in “World Cultures and Global Issues”? What would happen to a student transferring from one school to the other? The answer was that the course would continue to fill the area it was associated with at the first school. But how, if the student hadn’t yet met all of the area requirements, would the student continue?

One of the things that didn’t come up, but that should have been discussed openly and across the faculties of all the colleges before this was instituted (and should have been decided upon by the faculty), was this move to create new silos in place of (or in addition to) the older discipline silos–and just how placement within them should be defined. ‘Learning outcomes’ themselves are something of a sideways attack on faculty self-governance, for the very concept has not arisen from within the institutions but from outside organizations, including accrediting bodies. Perhaps it can be argued that these have nothing to do with the disciplines and faculties themselves but are concerned with more general educational goals, but I think that’s a little bit of a red herring: ‘learning outcomes’ are being used as means of structuring courses in increasingly quantifiable ways, for purposes that have little to do with education itself, but with control of the process. They have arisen from a lack of trust in the faculty… at least, from a lack of faith that the faculty can determine for itself (and without outside guidelines) the value of a particular offering.

Using ‘learning outcomes’ as a way of sorting courses for meeting a set of requirements, especially when those requirements (both in terms of the five areas and in terms of the learning outcomes) were established at a remove from the faculty, further erodes self-governance–but it also erodes any sense of solid structure within our educational systems, one of the very things Pathways was meant to avoid. The areas are so generalized, and the ‘learning outcomes’ so amorphous (“Articulate and assess ethical views and their underlying premises”: which of the five does this belong in? What course could this not be a goal of?) that the divisions start to seem random, almost capricious. Hammering out a new core structure among the faculty would have been difficult and time-consuming, but it would have ended up creating something with a great deal more clarity–of necessity. The competing needs and ideas within the faculty would have forced negotiation and justification before the fact, creating something solid and defensible as a whole. Not, as will now happen, on a case-by-case basis as departments tailor their ‘learning outcomes’ to particular areas and my committee evaluates their success in doing so, creating something definable only through ‘learning outcomes,’ creating a circularity of reasoning instead of a linear logic–a real pathway to a clear goal.

Though I am perfectly happy to serve on this committee, and to do the required work in hopes that Pathways succeeds, I see very little likelihood that it will. There are many more potential problems with Pathways than I have expressed here, any of which could derail the whole. Though the CUNY administration may have felt that side-stepping traditional governance structures and processes was the only way that its vision of Pathways could be instituted, it ignored the fact that those structures grew for a reason, one if which is that the individual vision (in this case, the administration’s vision) rarely covers all contingencies and needs. Change, to really succeed, needs to be constructed by the whole of an institution, not simply by its head–especially in education, where structures are cultural and diverse of necessity.