Coming back to core curriculum?

Nicholas Lemann published an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Case for a New Kind of Core”. Lemann is a former dean of Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and his intention is to strengthen liberal education through a return to core curriculum. What makes his proposal worth a closer look is that he actually proposes one, and critiques the previous attempt connected to AAC&U LEAP initiative. Finally, even though journalism in my opinion is not a liberal art, proposed curriculum is supposed to serve every avenue of college and graduate work by laying a foundation of what every educated person need to know. Or better still, do.

Let me start with the kernel of his argument, that strangely only starts at page six or so. Here is a list of eight one semester courses that are included in his proposal:

  • Information acquisition
  • Cause and Effect
  • Interpretation
  • Numeracy
  • Perspective
  • The Language of Form
  • Thinking in Time
  • Argument

To see this in perspective, Lemann’s core is methods, not content based. Therefore those eight courses are supposed to cover eight critical skills. It seems a bipartisan proposal, by on one hand avoiding any form of canonical knowledge (to the extent he proposes how this can be taught by various disciplinarian perspectives, and I would say stronger: in light of different values), and on the other by distancing itself from the 21-st century social issues agenda often pursued by the left-leaning institutions (think of American Diversity, or global cultures).

This proposal does not include any specific content courses, at least at the first glance. Therefore we do not have any of those: the Bible, DNA, coding, Great Books, public health, inequalities, scientific method, economics, foreign language, statistics, music, marketing, design, materials, visual planning etc., even though it is questionable if we should call somebody (college) educated if they have serious blanks in any of those. “What these courses” – says Lemann – “have in common is a primary commitment to teaching the rigorous (and also properly humble) pursuit of knowledge”. So they are supposed to lay the groundwork for future learning, and make students less likely to fall for blatant lies. At least this is my reading.

What I find the most striking, is that this list can be easily translated into a list of classic college courses that are fairly conservative:

  • Information acquisition – sociology of knowledge and a critique of sources
  • Cause and Effect – basic methodology
  • Interpretation – reading poetry
  • Numeracy – statistics
  • Perspective – epistemology
  • The Language of Form – painting and a frame
  • Thinking in Time – history
  • Argument – rhetoric

It is not clear why Lemann is so cautious about proposing them in such a form. Maybe because sounding obsolete would weaken his cause even before it is elaborated. Maybe. Maybe for strategic reasons not to alienate faculty and administration by proposing to offer a compulsory, core curriculum that is comprised of courses that on many campuses are given a short shrift, and they do not match the ambitions of the faculty. And remember, somebody has to teach them.

But maybe, and here I would like to turn to his critique of previous core curricula, the real reason is that this is not really new proposal. The most current approaches to general education are skills oriented: they try to capture the learning outcomes in terms of skills, and then ask students to select a number of courses from a skills-based distribution requirements. Lemann’s proposal does something similar, yet the skills are not defined by a human (reading, writing, speaking, counting etc.), but by a member of a knowledge community (critiquing sources, explaining causation, understanding relations, understanding assumptions, analysing context etc.).

What Lemann does not like in previous (yet contemporary) core curricula is that they put old wines in new bottles, overplay learning outcomes and assessment, use big words and pedagogy to obscure the content. But his proposal also uses big words (it is just OECD-EDU-fancier
“numeracy” than old-school “justice”), discusses just as much assingments as rationale, and does not explicitly say such courses should be designed anew and by whom. The fact that he does not say a word on pedagogy, which is I am afraid not a simple administrative issue of how many students and how much do they speak, is the only distinction.

This proposal offers eight semester-long courses that are supposed to be taken over first two years of college, and comprise just under half of undergraduate education at that time. If Lemann is correct to assume that high school graduates typically lack those skills, there is little point in offering them college-level courses before they acquire them.

This might be said to be an issue of completion – although Lemann is surprisingly ignorant as he sees 60% six year completion rate of a four year education as a result of lack of student preparation, and not skyrocketing debt. Bona fide social justice approach says: give them the tools to succeed in college. If so, this core curriculum should span over the first year, and fill the whole curriculum of the first year of college.

If this proposal does not explicly state that, it undermines the other assumption that a curriculum reform is needed, so rising cost and rising discount rate of this cost. Families do not believe they should go into so much debt just to have their children educated, especially in liberal arts. I strongly feel that Lemann does not believe that he could convince parents to pay so much for a year of basic-skills courses rather than something that said parents might not know themselves (and therefore feel more okay with paying a high price for). This makes Lemann’s proposal weak, as every revolutionary proposal based on compromise from day one.

More in that line, proposed curriculum does not speak anything about abolishing existing distribution requirements, which would be even more controversial form the perspective of faculty. But if we want to be consequential, we might put such general knowledge-oriented skills first, and then well-roundedness second. It would most likely squeeze out either the major, or the electives. As long as colleges are not willing to offer a higher course load (either six courses a semester, or summer terms because why not), there is always horse trading in any curriculum reform. Not making a case what we put out and why makes for a weak proposal.

A revolutionary proposal would look like this:

  • a year of skills based courses
  • a year of basic courses referring to most critical achievements of the past in a range of disciplines
  • a year of not-so-intro classes to 8 big areas of (academic) knowledge
  • a final year with concentrated classes in the new major, with a year long, team-based yet individually assessed research, ending with a public defense of a thesis

This would be not a small tweak in the system, but a fundamental change in how we perceive higher education. There would be some sort of logical progression between the years, with developing the mind capacities, then furnishing it with what influences the present in many ways, then taking students on a tour of current knowledge so they can see what excites them most, and finally doing a year of demanding research, with both acquiring and producing new knowledge and proving itself in front of the others as expert. Such curriculum would have no place for professional courses, which should rightly belong to graduate school. While it would not fully do away with hand-holding the poor, lost students by a concerned faculty (see it in Lehmann’s piece?), it would also challenge them to do the things they might not immediately like rather than opt out or postpone. It would make a lot of sense to offer team-based, yet single courses without the option for electives, because the principle of electives is based on a subject able to do the choices, and if Lemann is right, current students are not (even if it is not their fault). And if we still believe higher education works on a principle of Enlightment, critical thinking, or active citizenship, we must put our responsibility as educators first, and students freedom second, to both make college valuable and seen as such. After all, such a college would not be for everybody (this applies to Lemann’s, but he seems unaware), but it would offer something specific rather than anything goes.

Skills are not enough. We should stop pretending that you could learn writing in any class that makes you submit a written assignment. We should ask our students more. But we also have to make college a full time experience again, and create a financial system that would make it available to everybody. Finally, only after we disjoin the link between failing students and financial stability of institutions, we might make education seem worthy its price.

Liberal arts would not be saved by a tweak in the currently dominating system of not-so-small-cafeteria-option set of classes offered to students in between sport, drinking and holidays. The power of the research model has extended to colleges, and is increasingly putting a premium on mimicking serious research at a less advanced level, to the detriment of both students and professors. Career anxiety is, by definition, not entering any marriage with liberal arts. We need more thinking in a line that Lemann proposes – but this design has to be bold. For me, the measure of boldness would be for example requiring students to learn a foreign language. To make sure this language is foreign to all of them – so they are actually learning, not stratifying in terms of background – we might think of a dead, superficial, or specialist one. Or maybe a combination.

The subject of the university has never been the world around, nor the student. So Lemann got this right that he tries to put knowledge first, even though much of his concern seems superficial, not to say journalistic. We might enhance a curriculum like presented above by designing courses so that they can build on students skills brought from extensive use of mobile devices, or relate the course matter to pressing issues of today’s world. But the rationale to have something in the curriculum, or not have it, should be based in what we know about knowledge – nothing else. Not the major, not the cost, not completion anxiety, not the fear of Trump century, not the shortcomings of students, not what we used to have in whatever imaginary past of the universities.

Maybe no existing institution is ready and capable to make a revolutionary change in the curriculum; maybe we need a new one.

Autumn in New York

Wagner College campus today


It has been much too long since I last posted. Well, life happens, but mostly uni life. I upgraded, attended several conferences, conducted 7 interviews for my dissertation (also across Europe) and arrived to New York. This is where I am now Fulbright Scholar at Wagner College.

Last year was a rollercoaster so I enjoy getting my daily routine of work in one place for a change. Wagner takes wonderful care of me, as I now have my own office with a meeting space, hardly normal conditions for a PhD student life. As you can see, it has one of the typical, lovely American campuses. There will certainly be a time that I write more about my small culture shocks and other things you only get to see when you are around for longer, not just visiting. Thanks to John Esser, who is kind of my guardian here, as well as Lily McNair, Jeffrey Kraus, Richard Guarasci, and obviously Fulbright Commission, I would work at Wagner. Incredible amount of time, at least compared to the time perspective I was used to.

While I still have some loose ends from before, I hope to get over it in the coming weeks so that I can focus on what is in from of me. First, it is small research project that I tentatively call “pragmatic consensus in action; trends in liberal education in the USA”. I believe that Wagner Plan for Practical Liberal Arts is comprehensive solution to some of the common tensions seen in American discourse on liberal education recently. So they are unique, in some ways, but the pressures they experience at Wagner are hardly unique. This work is an extension on my preliminary research that has just been published as an article in “Educational Studies. Moscow”. By the way, this is my first journal article, already bilingual (English and Russian). For the project, I attend fieldtrips, faculty meetings, as well as conduct interviews. I hope this to be a valuable addition to my knowledge of liberal education in comparative perspective.

To understand better what I see, I finally managed to find time to do some readings. There are many books to read obviously, but now I focus on new ones: “Paying the Price” by Sara Goldrick-Rab, and “The Great Mistake” by Christopher Newfield. This long-time attention given to one topic and one author is something that I really missed for some time now.

My work at University of Winchester obviously continues. I prepared two extended abstracts that are based on my upgrade submission, one conceptual and one empirical. Not exactly sure what I would do with them yet, but it helped me to see some broader relevance of my niche research. Just in September, I was awarded Vice-Chancellor Award for Excellence in Research, and a month later I was again happy to receive Julie J. Kidd ECOLAS Travel Research Fellowship. I plan to use both awards to pay for my American trips to consult my work that I plan to use for dissertation.

All of this require a better description. I plan to disclose all the papers/projects I am now working on in Research Gate, as well as update my publication record with MISH article that is in print in “Working Papers in Higher Education Studies” (in English) as well as “Nauka i Szkolnictwo Wyższe” (in Polish). I also think that I should finally transform this blog, both visually and content-wise, into a daily/weekly writing outlet in a first place, and a platform to think on my projects, questions and their connections. Occassionally, I might also refer to some other work that I do, “consulting” or saying my thing to people who I am not professionally connected but we often speak about higher education with regards to their projects. Or write a word or two on my plans, where am I headed in my life as a researcher. This would most certainly be done before the end of the year, and I hope that would give you more reasons to visit my blog than shameless blowing my own trumpet.


Few thoughts from the train home

Last couple of weeks were incredibly intensive, but also refreshing for my thinking on wider relevance of my research. I have met so many inspiring young minds ready to engage in the debate on the future of higher education in general, and possible place for European liberal education in particular. 1st LESC was obviously first and foremost a spring of those discussions, but what surprised me was the level of personal care many students showed towards this particular form of studies. We are alike in a way: curiosity of a researcher mixed with a sense of gratitude of a student towards their institution and their teachers. Add to that international mix of students, and this sounds like a recipe for a great discussion. I hope the conversation will continue.

EUREDOCS was exceptional in another way. Group of just a dozen students have been joined by first-rate professors to engage in a dialogue that was professional, forward-thinking and intergenerational at the same time. Perfectly organized by Helen Perkins, Francois Smit and the rest of SRHE, I wish this intimate meeting might have taken place even more often than once every two years.

UNIKE rose up to the high expectations I had beforehand. Geographical, but also professional diversity of participants provided a crash course on the current challenges of higher education in (old?) times of knowledge economy. Seeing again all the people that so kindly accepted me to Oslo half a year before was so nice, and the perfectly calm atmosphere of Copenhagen worked great as a backdrop for catching up. It is impossible to name everybody, but I particularly remember lovely talks with Peter Maassen and Chris Newfield, Davydd Greenwood and Sue Wright, Pavel Zgaga and Rebecca Boden, as well as people doing great job at heterodox universities. I hope that the project will have a follow up it deserves.

Other brilliant folks that I met in Groningen and Lisbon, at summer schools of histories of education and sociology, provided useful comments, but maybe more importantly, challenged me to reframe my interests for different audiences. Format of a summer school, which allows for more in-depth discussion of particular research, as well as numerous non-formal interactions is an important element in formation of new researchers, that we should try to sustain and develop even when it is not very much rewarded for any party involved.

Finally, a conference convened by Marek Kwiek and Kristian Szadkowski in Poznań provided a great opportunity to meet higher education researchers in Poland. This seems quite basic, but as this milieu is in statu nascendi, it is a great opportunity in itself. One particular dimension of our discussions was “Ustawa 2.0”, so a coming prospect of new higher education law in Poland, one that might be inspired by a proposal coming out from the Poznań team. I brought with me not only a proposal to treat MISH/MISMaP as liberal education, but also watchdog reports from Fundusz Pomocy Studentom. Creating links and generating data and analyses might be the two most important tasks before researchers interested in higher education in Poland.

Last, but absolutely not least, I have finally started interviews for my PhD with the founding fathers of liberal education in contemporary Europe. Hans Adriaansens was very generous to talk with me at lengths. I am particularly happy that we were able to go in-depth into Dutch university colleges, beyond the obvious and general into more strategic, historical and organizational details that might help me write a better dissertation.

After a change of schedule, it now seems that I will have my upgrade viva in mid-August, which means I have to complete my literature review and methodology by the end of July. Thus I am very grateful for all the feedback that I was able to receive for both my study design and partial results during last weeks, from so different people. As not that many of us know about the idea and practice of liberal education in Europe, I look forward to writing a post for this blog alongside more personal document, expressing my rationale for the study and wider “so what”. I think this might help me structure the whole project that went through numerous iterations and transformations.

But probably before that happens, I need couple days off. This year was extremely strenuous, and the summer looks not less intensive. Reflecting on the discussions, remembering faces of those who generously shared their opinions and time to help me improve the thinking, and feeling grateful for how, after all, everything seem to fit in the final instances – this is the task for the coming days. I consider myself extremely lucky, and I hope that one day I will be able to give back much more than what I am now receiving.

One possible path to do that would be to transform this blog into more of a work-in-progress thought diary and less of a narcissistic exercise. As everything, this would require my most scarce resource – time – yet the benefits would be ever bigger.

Right now, to all of you – especially those not mentioned by name in this post – my deepest thanks.

1st Liberal Education Student Conference

May 12-15 in Lüneburg there will be a feast of European Liberal Education. After a conference in Amsterdam, when scholars dedicated to the idea of core texts have an opportunity to create an international debate, this time undergraduate researchers from liberal education institutions would have an opportunity to discuss the very premises of this mode of study.

The organizing team, which means students from Leuphana University Studium Individuale and University College Freiburg, attracted applicants from several European countries, as well as Hans Adriaansens, Teun Dekker and Nigel Tubbs from among the leaders of European liberal education. The conference would include both paper presentations – I read all 29 of them, and they are really strong and interesting – as well as more practical workshops on the idea and the future of liberal education in our continent. I was invited to give a keynote speech in which I will share some of my findings on the diversity hidden behind a common name, as well as propose six challenges that almost a hundred participants will work on over next three days.

This is the first instance of a totally grassroots initiative, that fairly quickly attracted a lot of attention not only in Germany and the Netherlands, but also in Russia, Latvia, Denmark and the UK. It builds on the experiences of national events, but both the scale and the potential impact are incomparable. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publisher, Jürgen Kaube, will join us in this uneasy conversation, as well as Katharina Dermühl from Kiron University. A publication based on the papers seems very likely. But most importantly, we might be at the verge of creating an association that would join liberal educators on continent, both generating much needed support and coordination on a daily basis, and generating a solid basis for research-based reforms.

I am extremely excited about the next four days, which is ample time to have some real discussion and get to know other participants. The generational change in European liberal education is getting real.

Faculty hiring: our paper has just been published

An important report has just been published: #5 on faculty hiring policies (vs. realities) in Poland. Numerous dedicated young researchers have contributed to a volume that might stir up the debate regarding non-transparent, non-open, non-merit-based faculty hiring that haunts too many Polish higher education, to the detriment of their scientific productivity, student learning and international reputation.

I was delighted to be invited to prepare an important part on good practices from other countries. Three brilliant young researchers – Madelaine Leitsberger, Aleksandra Swatek and David Kretz – agreed to join me in this uneasy pursuit. Together we prepared quite long analysis touching upon Norway, Austria the UK, the US. It is my sincere hope that this would be not only interesting, but also inspiring and useful read for some Polish researchers and practitioners.

This was an important paper both because it touches on important issue – showing possible pathways out of an open and dirty secret of Polish academia – and even more importantly, because it is my first collaboration. Teamwork is different, difficult at times, but it is also much more efficient and it allows for better insights. Working with Madelaine, Aleksandra and David was a pleasure, and I look forward to do more of this in the future.

Sadly, there was no space to do that in print, but I would like to especially thank Philipp Friedrich from University of Oslo and Georgiana Mihut from Boston College, for their help and suggestions during the preparation of the paper.

Kontowski, D., Kretz, D., Leitsberger, M., Swatek Aleksandra M., Dobre praktyki w obsadzaniu stanowiska akademickich na zagranicznych uczelniach [Good practices in faculty hiring: international insights] [in:] R. Pawłowski & D. Rafalska, (eds.) Otwarte i uczciwe konkursy na stanowiska nauczycieli akademickich – reguła czy wyjątek? [“” #5]. ISBN 978-83-931991-9-8. Fundusz Pomocy Studentom, Warszawa 2016, pp. 63-97.

The whole report can be accessed here.


2016: New beginnings

Submitting my first grant report in March put me in a position of relative comfort. Me from 2011 would never believe the direction my interest in international liberal education movement took over time. The journey from philosophical and opinionated to more data-driven and understanding was not an easy one. Writing up the final report, which I was stupid enough to pledge in three language versions (Polish, English and Russian) – was certainly the biggest challenge I ever experienced. However, now that it is done, it is finally time to clean up the desk, decide what is of worth in that, and move one to new projects.

Actually, I did not really feel relieved after those 500 pages. There are new things coming up soon, and I want to put them here in case somebody would like to bump into me (or as a trigger warning where I should be avoided). So here are the things I was up to over the last quarter, hoping to secure opportunities to listen, speak and discuss the issues of higher education – and learn in the most effective way: from other people.

So here is the plan:

  • 26.04.2016, Winchester (UK), Postgraduate Student Spring Symposium, organized by University of Winchester, paper presented: European Liberal Education: the basic questions

I just made a fancy Prezi and a Google map for that – they may be updated).

taking our research for Inside Higher Ed articles to a new level by getting a close up on institutions half a year later and assessing the support offered

– I am honoured to be part of the movement that hopes to revive European Liberal Education; in this speech I will suggest why we need serious research to start doing it.

First rate scholars and intensive discussion; this should be really helpful.

  • 7-8.06.2016, Poznań (Poland), III Ogólnopolska Konferencja Badaczy Szkolnictwa Wyższego [3rd conference of Polish Higher Education Researchers], organized by Center for Public Policy, Adam Mickiewicz University, paper presented: Edukacja liberalna w Europie: naiwne pytania [Naive look at European Liberal Education].

as this is a group by invitation only, I am very happy to count among its ranks and I hope to build stronger ties with the group of researchers led by prof. Marek Kwiek.

–  long history of this summer school and excellent teachers would allow me to learn about a subfield I do not know much yet.

a brilliant, global community of higher education researchers will meet up for the last time under the UNIKE banner; this time at its home in Copenhagen

After a short break (I will probably recharge in Rome), traditional summer conference marathon looks like that:

Two more presentations are still in consideration; as are two articles (in English finally) that I submit to journals and one grant proposal that should be decided on in June. After some reshuffling, two more articles should leave the press anytime soon. I finally managed to keep my | ResearchGate a up to date so that you can read it there.

I hope that I can afford to travel to all those conferences, especially that I will pause for the most part of next academic year.

Since October 2016 I will be a visiting researcher at Wagner College in New York – as a Junior Advanced Research Award holder selected by the Fulbright Commission. So hopefully I will have nine months of relatively quiet time to transcribe and analyze my interviews from the summer, and learn more about the „practical liberal arts” philosophy elaborated by prof. Richard Guarasci and his team at Wagner. Next year will be devoted to tying up the loose ends and working hard towards a better publication track. I think I now badly need some conclusions from my previous work on liberal education.

But who knows what would happen. Just half a year ago I would never imagine that apart from my daily research and grant report writing I would find time to work on refugees with Madelaine and on private liberal arts in Germany with David; that I will publish opinion pieces on Inside Higher Ed and in Polish newspapers; and that I will be kindly asked to review some articles for Learning and Teaching The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences. It was a busy, productive, sometimes dramatic, but also incredibly rewarding time; I hope to continue on this track for another half a year.

Coming back to the Netherlands

It is now official that I will be a part of 7th History of Education Summer School in Groningen 9-12.06. The school is organized by European Educational Research Association and would surely help me get my head around dealing with history in describing liberal education institutions. Read more about it here.

I hope that I manage to bind early Summer in the Netherlands with some interviews in new University College Tilburg, meeting the team behind two planned University Colleges (shhh!) and a friendly visit to Middelburg.

Meanwhile in Poland

The beginning of this new year was quite productive. Couple of things have finally been published, mostly in Polish, and mostly on Poland.


The first two pieces are currently offline-only:

  • Altbach, P.G. & Kontowski, D., 2015. Pospolitość akademii. Z Philipem G. Altbachem rozmawia Daniel Kontowski. ResPublica Nowa, 4, pp.88–96.

This is the Polish version of the interview that has been published on Inside Higher Ed (see: publications). The interview has been conducted during my stay in Boston in June 2015. By the way, this is the first Altbach’s publication in Polish – I hope more will follow.


  • Bucholc, M. & Kontowski, D., 2016. Wyzwolić czy zliberalizować? Dylematy kształcenia inteligencji. Kultura Współczesna, 88(4), pp.37–50.

The article comparing the liberal education with (neo)liberalization of higher education, using Michael D. Kennedy’s concept of design intellectualism to discuss contemporary reforms in Polish universities. Written with brilliant (as always) Marta Bucholc, currently professor at the University of Bonn.


Smaller pieces can already be found online:

  • Kontowski, D., 2015. Tocqueville o roli literatury antycznej w demokracji. In K. Ratajczak (ed.), Dziedzictwo kulturowe. Edukacja. Historia. Dziedzictwo regionalne. Muzyka, literatura, sztuka i media. Poznań: Repozytorium Uniwersytetu im. Adama Mickiewicza (AMUR), pp. 21–37.

Article based on my presentation at 2014 conference in Poznan, discussing Tocqueville stance on liberal education in a democratic society: why do we need it, and why we don’t need too much of it.


Opinion piece on improvements I consider much needed in the Diamond Grant program of funding research projects for Master level students in Poland, appeared alongside other reactionS.


My controversial response to suspending the “Studies for the excellent ones” program in Poland. I believe that suspension after potential candidates applied to top ARWU universities is scandalous, and at the same time giving voice to the academia was a brilliant move by an ambitious new minister, seeking broad support by taking down an easy target: internationalization initiative that was supposed to send 100 brightest Polish students abroad.


Two versions of my article describing the support declared in Autumn 2015 by the Polish universities towards the refugees from ongoing Syrian crisis. The first account of largely uncoordinated initiatives, discussing the reasons for support and the prospects for the future in changed political climate.

I am currently quite busy working on the report from my research grant, applying to some conferences and working on the database for my PhD project. I hope to get back here soon with some good news and finally some analyses and opinion pieces drawing from what I do these days.