Core curriculum is a college curriculum that has several important features: students take the same courses, read the same texts, and gain a common knowledge-base. The text and courses chosen for this experience illustrate the material that the institution has decided is central to the undergraduate experience. To learn more about core curriculum, keep reading.

Is it Really Core Curriculum?

By the lights of those who value the traditional idea of core curriculum, much of what passes for core curriculum today is nothing but distribution requirements. Distribution requirements ensure that a student's courses are distributed across the curriculum. Thus, a student may be required to take courses in the physical sciences, the biological sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. But distribution requirements do not by themselves, though they may help to create more well-rounded students, create the common knowledge-base that is established by a core curriculum.

This does not mean that core curriculum programs necessarily have all undergraduates taking a mandatory set of absolutely identical courses. Sometimes the core consists of small groups of courses among which students choose. A typical example of this is a foreign language requirement.

Most colleges offer a wide range of choices for foreign language, including languages that are no longer spoken, like Assyrian, languages that are gaining international use, like Chinese, and modern languages that have far fewer native speakers than English and Chinese, such as Slovak. But the point is, whichever language a student chooses to undertake, he or she will be exposed to certain identical concepts: consideration of the function of grammar and syntax; the problems of translation; the existence of extensive vocabulary in areas in which English doesn't share the same richness and/or limited vocabulary in areas in which English has more depth.

Another way in which the name core curriculum can be misused, according to the old school thinking, is to use it to name the situation in which students share the experience of being exposed to whatever ideas are currently in vogue. This shared experience fails to earn the name of core curriculum in a different way: by failing to present curriculum that is at the heart, or the core, of an undergraduate's educational experience.

The Traditional Common Core

One representative of a core curriculum that is, in fact, associated very closely with the term, is the University of Chicago. Chicago's Core was developed when Robert Maynard Hutchins was president, 1929-1945. The focus of the Core courses was, and is today, aimed at teaching the tools of academic inquiry rather than the acquisition of particular facts.

Students are expected to understand the scientific method, reasoning, text analysis, and artistic expressions. In certain Core courses - those in Social Sciences and Humanities - students share another common experience: exposure to a Socratic teaching method that moves forward through conversation about primary sources (that is, neither lecture, nor criticism). Also at the fore are critical thinking, written expression, and the ability to construct an argument.

These abilities, concepts, and habits of mind are taught within clusters of Core courses which invite students to consider similar, but not identical, texts and ideas as they develop a common set of tools and vocabulary and concepts.

The Core areas now taught at University of Chicago include:

  • Humanities, Civilization Studies, and the Arts
  • Natural and Mathematical Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Language Requirement
  • Physical Education

The undergraduate arm of Columbia University - Columbia College - is also known for its core curriculum. Some institutions of higher education, notably Brown University, have nearly no core requirements and leave most course selection to the discretion of the student.

Other Uses of the Term Core Curriculum

The term core curriculum is also used more generally of the mandated portion of an education program as opposed to elective choices that are left to students. In this sense, nearly all primary education is core curriculum, with many students first experiencing a limited choice among core subjects (for example, French or Spanish) in middle school or junior high. High schools usually have a core curriculum in this sense to ensure that their students are prepared for the work force or college, but also offer students some elective choices.


The National Association of Scholars: “The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993” -

The University of Chicago: College Admissions: The Common Core -