Four reasons why a core curriculum is a good idea (hint: it would help us fight the next pandemic)

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The Board’s proposal to establish a core curriculum for all students wasn’t received with much enthusiasm. Martijn van der Meer, from the UU Open Science Programme, thinks that's totally unjustified. In his view, education meant for all students, regardless of disciplinary background, would actually be very beneficial. 

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Last Thursday, the DUB panel was invited to comment on the Executive Board’s much criticised proposal to introduce a core curriculum, basically kicking someone who’s already down. The plan was said to stem from the ambition to make all UU students fly out into the world with at least partially similar academic identities. Alas, the idea was mostly met with fearful feedback in the past few months.

The questions and comments made by the (rather cynical) DUB panel form a colourful collage of the practical obstacles to a core curriculum. One of the interviewees said that it would ‘limit students’ freedom of choice’. Another one angrily stated that this is yet another ‘bad administrative prestige project’ – besides, didn’t Elsevier Magazine already show that the UU is the ‘best broad university’? Why would we need a core curriculum?

Above all else, the panel members share the fear that introducing a core curriculum would come at the expense of the carefully-crafted curricula that the students have chosen with great care. Admittedly, the Executive Board wasn't clear about what this core curriculum would look like in practice, so the panel's pragmatic questions and objections are quite understandable.

Unfortunately, this narrow (and complacent) point of view ensures that very little is said about the substance of the idea of offering courses that all UU students should (be able to?) take alongside students from other programmes. That’s why I’ve been so kind as to help out the ladies and gentlemen of the university administration. I won’t focus on the practical aspects for now, but I’d like to present four substantive reasons why a core curriculum is a good idea. Especially now.

(i) Diversity
A core curriculum has the potential to train every UU student to become an academic who’s capable of looking at issues from the point of view of other disciplines. It would be wonderful if, when handling matters such as the ecological crisis, a Physics student, a Sociology student, and a Literary Science student would learn to think and communicate together about climate change. Wouldn’t those differing perspectives ensure that academics are more capable of connecting with societal problems in a creative and constructive way? Wouldn’t a core curriculum prevent them from having tunnel vision, ensuring that they don't drown in the articles from their own disciplines – which sometimes are completely illegible for other scientists?

(ii) Corona
The fact that scientists struggle to look – and especially to listen – beyond the confines of their own disciplines is evidenced by the often clumsy, completely naïve attitude they have amidst the current public health crisis. Biomedical experts from the Outbreak Management Team (RIVM in the Dutch acronym), having got their medicalised halters on, just won’t understand why ‘society’ isn’t listening to their scientifically well-substantiated advice. To make matters worse, another group of Dutch scientists started a ‘Red Team’ involving multiple perspectives but they are side-lined in the discussion. How amazing would it be if these scientific perspectives wouldn’t battle each other in talk shows, but instead engage in constructive conversations in the context of a core curriculum?

(iii) Academic integrity
The extent to which people listen to scientists is directly proportional to the faith society has in science as an institution. The apparent growth of the number of conspiracy theorists doesn’t necessarily stem from an increase in general stupidity, but rather from an increasing distrust in institutions. Therefore, it doesn’t help to slap people in the face with the latest peer-reviewed papers from Nature, Science, or Cell. Instead, we should confront sceptics demonstrating the professional and academic integrity scientists commit to. Transparency (a peek behind the scenes, showing the substantive uncertainty which scientists have to deal with on a daily basis) breeds trust.

A core curriculum would be the perfect place to jointly reflect on what it means to be a (good) scientist. hat morals do the different disciplines have? Why should we trust scientists? What do scientists base themselves on? What’s a good method? Should we share research data? (I’ve got an answer to that one: yes.) What’s the relationship between the university and society? Who decides what’s on our research agenda? Do researchers have a responsibility to work on societal issues?

A core curriculum could cover themes like research ethics, academic integrity, and dealing with data and privacy. It would also contribute to establishing shared values and getting the disciplines on the same page.

(iv) Open Science
Seen this way, a core curriculum would be a kickstart to make science more open and transparent, preventing students from locking themselves up in the confines of their own disciplines. If students learn (both from their own disciplinary perspective and with an open mind) to communicate with other scientists and come together in shared professional values, science production will then function like a team. A core curriculum wouldn’t just improve the academic programmes, but could also potentially lead to better scientific research – and perhaps even a better society.

Translation: Indra Spronk. Edited by Marjorie van Elven.

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