We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
In his first and longest chapter, "The Problem of General Education," Menand takes us through the historical evolution of Columbia University's core curriculum, one that he and most fans of rigorous, highly structured general education take as America's finest model of the genre. But then he goes on to document how his own campus, Harvard, and most other elite universities disdain such a highly specified approach in favor of "distribution requirements" which leave the selection of general education content largely to the student. One senses that Menand favors (or at least approves of) a Columbia-style core curriculum but seems to be resigned to it being an anachronistic outlier: "the problem with general education is that it is perceived as an attempt to impose on general education a mission - call it 'preparation for life' - whose rationale liberal education has traditionally defined itself in opposition to. This is why ....liberal arts faculty want to own general education and to have little to do with it at the same time."
I attended a university that had distribution requirements instead of required courses (though some courses were more or less required for specific majors). I preferred it at the time and still am not sure it wasn't better than a core curriculum. The only thing I had qualms about was the tendency for faux-courses to slip into the curriculum for the fairly open purpose of permitting an English major to satisfy his science requirement or vice versa.
As a graduate of Columbia University, back in 1951 in the days when it had a genuine core curriculum, I'm grateful now for the courses which at the time I was resentful of having to take. My own focus was always liberal arts and English Lit, because even then I planned to become someone who wrote words for money. But looking back, I am grateful for the science courses I had to take, most particularly Biology, and Logic and Semantics -- Logic, because at that point in time I was facing the future in a much more free-floating emotional way, and Logic forced me to read and reason more carefully so that what I wrote would be founded upon fact. Semantics was another valuable course, so valuable, as a matter of fact, that in my 30s I took a night course at the University of Wisconsin to further expand my understanding of it. There is no better way to learn quickly how your fellow humans think than to tackle a logical problem with a team of strangers. In an odd way, you get to know these folks better in a few hours than you know friends you've been acquainted with for years. And you can generalize from working with this team how opponents or allies think, how they can gloss over facts they don't want to accept, how they can jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence. Most folks are like Lewis Carroll's White Queen [or Red Queen, I dis-remember] who said "a word means what I want it to mean," and they feel the same way about facts. That's where brilliant commentators like Charles Krauthammer can use logic to show how often people tangle up themselves in wishful thinking, failing to reach a reasonable conclusion from a set of assumptions.
Many of today's educators [and journalists] don't want to be troubled with the 'scut-work' of fact-finding and fact-relating before they reach a conclusion. Journalists today seem focused on following agendas rather than following facts objectively. There is a certain studied disrespect of the readers in this approach. It's as if they are saying, "don't bother trying to reach a conclusion about this story. We'll tell you what it all means." This is off-putting, to say the least.
I seem to have gotten off-topic. Oh well. It's a rant, and I'm tired.
I concur with Marianne. I slipped in under the wire and received a true liberal arts education structured around a core curriculum. While I may not have been paying rapt attention all the time, I did absorb enough to appreciate the value of the intellectual pursuit of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. And I think I've tried to meet my goal of learning a little more every year. I feel sorry for the students of today who, if they learn anything at all about history and the classics, it seems to be why they are now irrelevant and meaningless.
Can't you get something like the best of both worlds by having the students be required to take a certain number of courses from areas outside their speciality, but not necessarily specifying the courses? In my school we could take geology or astronomy or calculus or physics to satisfy the math/science distribution requirement, and Shakespeare or Russian Lit or Chinese History to satisfy the humanities distribution. (I think each distribution area required four courses.) It worked well as long as you took the same courses that the students majoring in those fields were taking. It didn't work if someone offered a watered-down version just to get past the distribution requirement.