Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

The Core NYUAD Needs Now

Al Bloom begins the Vice Chancellor’s Message that appears on the NYU Abu Dhabi website by describing our institution’s primary aspiration: to be “one ...

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
Al Bloom begins the Vice Chancellor’s Message that appears on the NYU Abu Dhabi website by describing our institution’s primary aspiration: to be “one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world,” able to provide “the finest preparation for careers in a global world and for leadership in enhancing the quality of that world.” Most of us — students, faculty and staff — were, like the Vice Chancellor, drawn to the NYUAD project by the appeal of being educational “pioneers.”
If, however, NYUAD was ahead of the curve when the process of its curriculum development began in 2008, it is now one of a number of international liberal arts colleges, each of which professes to have global aspirations. The rest of the educational world is catching up.
The ongoing Core Curriculum reform represents a vital opportunity for NYUAD to maintain its pioneering role in the creation of a global liberal arts and science educational model for the 21st century. We believe that the proposal circulated last month by the committee charged with reviewing the Core, if slightly emended, represents the Core Curriculum that NYUAD needs now at this stage of its development.
Our peer institutions in the United States and abroad (including, for example, Chicago, Harvard, Stanford and Yale-NUS) have some version of a core or common curriculum. All of these fall along a spectrum of curricular design: as Phyllis Keller put it in Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard (1982), core curricula and general education requirements have generally “shuttled between extremes of prescription and permissiveness,” between a designated common curriculum that all students must take and a system based wholly on electives and distribution requirements. This spectrum of design persists to this day.
What can NYUAD do to create a distinctive core curriculum that shifts this model?
The Core Committee’s original draft proposal, dated 18 Oct. 2015, recognizes that NYUAD would be well served by combining these two approaches, by reconceiving the Core Curriculum as both a set of courses – the colloquia – and a set of breadth requirements.
We propose that the proposal be emended to redistribute the eight courses presently required by the Core in the following way, in order to give students greater flexibility:
  1. three Core colloquia taught only at NYUAD in the fourteen-week format;
  2. four Core breadth courses, one each from four areas: creative practice, cultural inquiry, data and design and social analysis. Courses will be chosen from a list approved by the Core Curriculum Committee in collaboration with the divisions and will include divisional and courses from the Global Network University, and thus courses counted towards majors and concentrations;
  3. requirements for quantitative reasoning and experimental reasoning to be satisfied somewhere within the seven Core courses listed above;
  4. the strong recommendation for a required writing course for all students.
The emendation to the original proposal comes in point 3, which states that there should be requirements for quantitative reasoning and experimental reasoning. By stipulating that these requirements can be fulfilled by the colloquia as well as the breadth courses, point 3 emphasizes that the colloquium courses can and should be offered not only by arts and humanities faculty, but also by faculty in the sciences, social sciences and engineering. As a result, some colloquium courses might make significant use of quantitative and experimental methods.
Such a revised curriculum would maintain the laudable aims of the original Core, particularly its “global” aspirations, so long as “global” is understood to mean either “cross-cultural” or “applicable across cultures.” This curriculum would work in collaboration with, rather than against, other important aspects of the NYUAD curriculum.
The present Core Curriculum has proven in practice to be difficult to sustain and has not been positioned to draw either on the growing curricular strength of the majors or on one of the most significant resources that is unique to NYU: the global network of campuses and away-sites.
A breadth requirement that enables the Core to draw on courses offered by the majors and the GNU will create greater flexibility for both students and faculty. It will enable faculty members at NYUAD to create new elective courses in their major programs, while encouraging students to explore the overall NYUAD curriculum to a greater extent than they do now.
Here’s the rub: there is nothing about the breadth aspect of a revised Core Curriculum that will keep NYUAD at the forefront of pedagogical innovation in the liberal arts.
Here’s the good news: NYUAD can continue to innovate by creating a set of courses – the Core colloquia – that are explicitly designed to recapture the original mission of the liberal arts and science education and update it for a global 21st century student body.
We have the opportunity to address the problem that Yale’s Anthony Kronman identifies in Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life (2007) and described at the NYUAD Institute a few years ago. Liberal arts programs, Kronman writes, “all rest on the assumption that one important aim of undergraduate education is to afford the young men and women who are its beneficiaries an opportunity to reflect on the curious and inspiring adventure of life before they have gone too far in it and lost the time and perhaps the nerve for such reflections.” But, he laments, “while emphasizing the importance of questions of meaning and purpose that transcend the narrowly vocational, few liberal arts programs today provide a place for their sustained and structured exploration.”
By including three Core colloquia, NYUAD’s Core Curriculum can become such a place. According to the Bulletin description, the current curriculum “asks students to grapple with profound and enduring questions about the human condition, society and the natural world [and to] probe basic questions about the meaning of life and our place in the world.” This powerful set of objectives has proved difficult, however, to implement with consistent excellence across the four categories of the current Core Curriculum.
This proposal for a revised Core Curriculum allows for breadth courses to work in tandem with colloquia, thus simplifying and clarifying the aims of the current model. The Core colloquium courses, taught as discussion-based seminars, will focus on abiding issues that often become flashpoints for irrational, ideological and emotional argumentation. This set of courses as a whole would adopt the basic principles of the original Core, but would be flexible enough in its implementation to allow for some variation in emphasis in each course, so that instructors can draw on the strengths of their disciplinary training without losing sight of the curriculum’s loftiest aims.
And three is the right number of colloquia, because NYUAD students spend an average of three years in residence at NYUAD. Having a tiered three-course requirement would enable students to take these courses in the early, middle and late stages of their undergraduate careers, guaranteeing a continuity of thinking about ways to engage complex and abiding issues critically.
To make this requirement easier to implement while NYUAD’s faculty is growing, the third course, taken in the senior year, might be drawn from a set of courses offered by the Core or cross-listed from departmental offerings, in acknowledgment of the fact that there are courses in the majors that do address big and abiding questions. The point of the third course is to have seniors, who are often caught up in the specialized research or practice that is required by the capstone, nevertheless have at least one final curricular experience that requires them to think broadly before graduation. If the model of creating senior-year colloquia in part from divisional offerings proves successful, it might well be retained even after NYUAD reaches its steady state for student enrollment and faculty size.
Having these Core colloquia would make NYUAD unique among those peer institutions that seek to train future global leaders: it would be the only school that devotes a part of its common curriculum to the explicit task of modeling the skills of research, critical thinking and expressive excellence that aspiring global citizens and public intellectuals will need after college.
In his “Global Network Reflection” (2010), NYU President John Sexton made the case for an educational model that will be familiar to NYUAD students who heard him speak at their Candidate Weekends:
Universities must work to produce "T-shaped" people (people who simultaneously possess deep and broad knowledge), even as society demands that we produce what I would call “I” shaped people (people who may be deep but who are, even at their best, narrow). We need depth, but we also need breadth. It is the liberal arts that develop such breadth. They foster an essential trait of a reflective person seeking to live a life of meaning. These are the citizens we need …
Much as we admire this formulation, we have come to believe that it needs further refinement. Learning to become a T-shaped person, to “possess deep and broad knowledge” simultaneously, will create elite students. But to become that something more that President Sexton, the NYUAD Core Curriculum and so many of our peer institutions want students to become – the global citizen – requires more.
In a 21st century model of liberal arts education, students need to reflect on the relationship between “deep” and “broad” forms of knowledge. This process of reflection entails understanding how research and thinking in the major, as part of disciplinary breadth, is enriched by the contextual breadth developed as part of the Core Curriculum. NYUAD wants its students to learn how to apply both forms of knowledge to the kind of vexing, real-world problems that confront us every day in the 21st century.
The Core colloquium courses proposed as part of the present reform process are designed to help students achieve that kind of self-consciousness about what they know and to be able to think clearly, critically and persuasively where others fail to do so. Together with the breadth requirements, these courses constitute the Core Curriculum that NYUAD needs now.
Three colloquium courses out of the thirty-five required to graduate from NYUAD aren’t very many. But, if they do the job that they are supposed to do, it is these courses that may make all the difference to students when, years from now, they reflect on how their NYUAD education prepared them for the challenges of the world.
Marzia Balzani, Research Professor of Anthropology Kevin Coffey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Martin Daughtry, Associate Professor of Music, NYU Carlos Guedes, Program Head of Music Taneli Kukkonen, Professor of Philosophy Debra Levine, Assistant Professor of Theater Cyrus R. K. Patell, Professor of Literature Nathalie Peutz, Assistant Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies Gabriel Rabin, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Matthew Silverstein, Program Head of Philosophy Justin Stearns, Program Head of Arab Crossroads Studies Godfried T. Toussaint, Program Head of Computer Science Deborah Lindsay Williams, Program Head of Literature and Creative Writing Shamoon Zamir, Associate Professor of Literature & Visual Studies
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