In Chantie’s recent post, she raised several interesting issues with eliminating a core curriculum. Although her post was more exploratory, I’ll respond to the issues as though they were raised in favor of the current system…
1. Students would lose time and need to start over if they decided to switch their focus.
This hinges on the notion that time not spent studying in-major is time lost. If someone decides to switch fields after focusing for four years, they simply add their deep knowledge in one field to their developing knowledge in another field. Nothing is lost. Especially early in life, there is more than enough time to develop a new area of expertise. It is interesting that the same argument is often considered absurd when used against a general education requirement in college. “Learning for learning’s sake is never a waste of time!” one might say.
Now, this may seem to support the scattered course of study that is our current K-12 system, but here is an important nuance: focusing gives a deep understanding; even if you change fields, you keep what you learned. Taking a few scattered classes in random fields does not give deep understanding. An intro physics class, for example, will never grant the ability to use the knowledge or contribute to society. The same applies to a single English class, psychology class, etc. In learning, as in life, much more is gained from a committed relationship than a series of one night stands.
2. Few skills can be directly transferred between fields.
Many skills are universally applicable. An understanding of how to best use time and resources can be learned anywhere and applied to anything. More and better methods of analysis are always useful, no matter your field or position. Teachers and schools may wish to focus on this side of learning more than they do regardless of the status of a core curriculum.
While it may take some creativity to apply more concrete knowledge in something like physics to creative writing, it can be done. Those that do often create some of the most interesting works (see: Madeleine L’Engle). At worst, you will simply be more versatile in what you can understand.
3. If people don’t learn certain information when young, it will be difficult to learn it later.
While this may be true, there is another factor at play here. With the time saved from not trying to learn everything, students have the time to develop mastery in a subject or two while young. In that process, students gain an understanding of the process that leads to mastery. They gain skills and perspectives which will help them to overcome the difficulties. Though it intuitively seems to me that we are accepting a small negative (not learning certain info early) in exchange for a big positive (learning how to learn), I have not seen any studies on which one is more important.
4. Supplemental classes (i.e. music and math) can mutually strengthen each other.
This is an excellent point. A companion point: breaking up math research or learning with music can give you a recharging break which helps you solve that thorny problem. I think that this is a very strong argument in favor of not focusing on a single topic alone. If you get stuck, then you might spin your wheels for days or weeks. However, if you have two to three simultaneous focus points, you can switch projects for a while when you get stuck in one.
However, I don’t see how this point supports a more general curriculum. A focused curriculum on, say, magnetic properties of materials and perfecting Vivaldi’s Spring on the violin could be a semester well spent. That project spread accomplishes the both principles of breaking up work and learning supplementary material while still maintaining a laser-like focus.