When I first began to work on the NYU Abu Dhabi curriculum in 2008 as a member of the college’s Humanities Coordinating Group, I was excited by the prospect of rethinking the traditional liberal arts curriculum as a global liberal arts curriculum appropriate for the twenty-first century.

Almost all liberal arts curricula have some sort of core or general education requirement designed to assure the breadth of a student’s program. It struck me that the Core Curriculum had the potential to be the most exciting and innovative of NYUAD’s offerings, because it would present students with cross-cultural perspectives on profound and enduring questions, at a time when many other schools were shying away from making such big-picture questions matters of academic study.

The Core Curriculum has achieved much as it enters its fifth year, but the road has not been entirely smooth. Some problems have arisen that threaten to undermine the strengths of the Core, particularly as the student population grows.

What follows is a proposal for an adjustment to the present Core Curriculum that would enable it to address these problems and better realize its goals.

The Goals of the Core

The Preview of Academic Programs, published in 2009 during NYUAD’s first admissions cycle, describes the Core as an evolution of “the idea of a core curriculum, which was developed in the early 20th century with a focus on Western civilization.” The hallmark of the NYUAD Core would be its “cross-cultural perspective”: “Rethought for the 21st century, the NYUAD Core focuses on great books and fundamental ideas from several different cultural traditions.” Students would take eight courses drawn from four areas: Pathways of World Literature; Art, Technology, and Invention; Structures of Thought and Society; and Ideas and Methods of Science. The Preview listed the following in large type as guiding principles of the Core Curriculum:

  • Small classes: 10-15 students
  • Sustained contact with faculty
  • Seminars based on discussion
  • Cross-cultural perspectives
  • Great books, big issues and ideas
  • Significant writing requirements

The introductory paragraph of the Preview’s section on the Core introduced two terms — “questions” and “skills” — that I believe are the key to revitalizing the present curriculum. According to the Preview, “The NYUAD Core Curriculum asks students to grapple with profound and enduring questions about the human and social condition while developing essential intellectual skills.” One of the central problems has turned out to be the difficulty of combining these two aims effectively, for reasons that I’ll outline below.

Rebooting the Core

What follows is a simple framework for a reboot that might enable NYUAD to take its Core to the next level. It involves two key proposals:

  • Separate Questions from Skills: Divide the eight-course requirement in two, with four courses devoted primarily to “profound and enduring questions” and four courses devoted primarily to developing the skills that the NYUAD faculty believes to be “essential” to an undergraduate education.The four “questions” courses would be the heart of an NYUAD student’s liberal arts education and would be unique to NYUAD. No substitutions from elsewhere in the GNU.The four “skills” courses requirements could be satisfied in a number of ways: through courses created specially under the auspices of the Core Curriculum committee, through course offerings by the four divisions, and through courses offered elsewhere in the GNU.
  • No More Divisions: Get rid of the Core divisions, which have become confusing to both students and faculty.



Instead of viewing the Core as a set of courses, each of which seeks to achieve the various goals described above, it would be better to think of the Core as an overall curriculum that uses a variety of different kinds of courses to achieve its aims. Under the present system, too many courses have become catchall containers that pay lip service to all of the aims of the Core but are, in practice, disciplinary courses with a few minor Core-like additions.

So let’s not force square pegs into round holes. Let’s give divisions and instructors different ways of contributing to the Core program, either by teaching “question” courses along of the present curriculum’s strongest offerings, or “skills” courses that can take a variety of forms. These two categories — skills and questions — aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but problems have arisen as the curriculum has tried to give equal emphasis to each of them in every Core course.

As Phyllis Keller put it in Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard (1982), Core curricula and general education requirements have generally “shuttled between extremes of prescription and permissiveness,” between a designated common curriculum that all students must take and a system based wholly on electives and distribution requirements. The NYUAD system would be well served by combining these two approaches, by reconceiving the Core as both a set of courses and a set of distribution requirements.

The “questions” courses — I will refer to them as “Core courses” from now on — should be sacrosanct: carefully curated by the Core Director and the Core Curriculum committee each year, these courses would only be offered during regular terms (not J-terms) at NYUAD (no course substitutions from the GNU allowed). Some students might take more than one of these courses in the first year, while others (for example, Engineering students) might take one a year.

In recent years, the ideal Core course has been described as “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “pre-disciplinary” — in any case, as an alternative to the kind of specialized thinking that students do in their majors. On occasion, however, courses have been cross-listed between sections of the Core, which suggests that these sectional divisions have already become moot. The “Core” courses that I imagine going forward capitalize on the fact that they offer “varied forms of thinking” that aren’t based on disciplinary structures: they bring together different kinds of objects of study and methods of analysis that come from disparate disciplines and seek to emphasize cross-cultural perspectives of one kind or another in order to offer prismatic views of their subjects.

In contrast to the carefully curated, non-substitutable “Core” courses, the skills requirement could be satisfied in a variety of ways. Students might satisfy some of the requirements simply by virtue of completing their majors. The faculty will need to identify the four “essential” skills to be promoted — no easy task — which might include such things as experimentation and lab work, language, oral expression, practical arts, quantitative reasoning, or writing. My suggestion, in the context of the NYUAD curriculum would be these four: experimentation, practical arts, quantitative reasoning, and writing.

Taken together, these suggestions promote the overarching goal of taking the innovative aspect of the NYUAD Core Curriculum — its emphasis on “profound and enduring questions” considered in the “cross-cultural” perspectives necessary in the twenty-first century — and pushing it further. Meanwhile, the more traditional aspect of the curriculum — its need to teach “skills” — can draw on existing strengths in the curricula of NYUAD’s divisional offerings.


Here are some of the problems that have arisen for the Core Curriculum in the past five years that my proposal is designed to address.

1. Too Many Courses Required

In theory, devoting approximately one-fourth of a student’s program to core courses seems like a reasonable idea. For example, Harvard University, which recently replaced its “Core Curriculum” with a new “Program in General Education,” requires students to take one course in each of eight prescribed areas.

But NYUAD students have found the eight-course requirement to be onerous, given that most of them spend two terms away at other GNU sites and that some majors programs now strongly suggest that students declare and begin their major programs of study in the first year. As a result, students have sought to use the J-Terms in January and June to “take care of” areas of the Core that they believe to be less hospitable to them.

When I was Associate Dean of the Humanities, one of my ongoing tasks was to work with the registrar’s office to match up GNU courses with NYUAD Core requirements. The fact that it was and (I’m told) continues to be a frustrating exercise shows that the Core is in fact doing something innovative: given the perspectives it brings to bear on diverse objects of study, an NYUAD Core course should be unlike courses regularly offered elsewhere in the university. But the integrity of the NYUAD Core program is eroded by the fact that students regularly require substitutions for Core courses in order to have time to fulfill their major requirements and also take advantage of study away. Course substitution has thus essentially become an unofficial principle of the Core Curriculum.

Reducing the number of required “Core” courses to four means that all students will have time to take these courses while in residence in Abu Dhabi during a regular term. The Core courses can thus become a distinctive and inviolable part of the NYUAD curriculum, freed from the compromises that are presently necessary.

2. The Divisions are Confusing

Students and faculty both report that the rationale for assigning a course to one area of the Core as opposed to another is not particularly clear. For example, the popular Reinventions of Love started out as a Pathways of World Literature Course in 2010, was cross-listed with Arts, Technology, and Invention in 2011, and then became an ATI course in 2012, cross-listed now with PWL. Several other courses are cross-listed, in part to make sure there are sufficient courses available in each of the areas.

Some courses officially count both as Core courses and as major courses, which runs counter to the idea that courses are meant to be something other than “disciplinary,” “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “pre-disciplinary.” Indeed, that guiding principle seems to be violated by the very existence of a Core division called “Pathways of World Literature,” which “introduces students to significant works of literature in different cultural traditions and involves close reading and discussion of primary texts.” The Literature faculty has struggled to figure out what the difference should be between a PWL course and a course offered in the Literature and Creative Writing major. And having a full section of the Core devoted to the discipline of literary study has made it difficult to offer enough of these courses each year given the size of the LITCW faculty relative to the faculty as a whole, leading to an over-reliance on visitors to fill out this section of the Core or offering courses that only technically meet the PWL description.

Removing the distinctions would enable the Core to become more consistently non-disciplinary and focus on profound and enduring questions, while still exposing students to “varied modes of thinking.”

3. The Big Picture Problem

One of the goals of the Core has been to draw equally from each division of the University, but it has proven to be the case that not all faculty members — most of whom have been trained in rigorous disciplinary thinking — are comfortable teaching the kind of “big-picture” courses that the Core seeks to create. It is true that members of the arts and humanities division are more likely on average to be comfortable with the “big-picture” approach and that doing away with the divisions may well lead to an underrepresentation of natural science and social science faculty members.

There are, of course, scientists who like to embrace the “big picture” — names like Michael Gazzaniga, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and E. O. Wilson come to mind — but the ability to recast disciplinary scholarship in the terms that the Core requires may be a skill that some natural and social scientists develop over time, while others choose never to leave the confines of their disciplinary homes. Junior faculty in these fields are likely to find teaching “big-picture” courses particularly onerous, given the need to produce high-level disciplinary work in the years before tenure.

Rather than expect each division to contribute in the same way to the Core curriculum, why not invite each division to contribute to the big-picture “questions” courses and allow divisions to tilt their contributions to the skills requirements by offering both divisional introductory and elective courses that meet a “skills” or distribution requirement and/or by designing skills courses for non-majors? For example, it would be wonderful if there were a physics course that non-scientists would line up to take. Indeed, such a course might well pose some big questions in addition to teaching quantitative and experimental skills, but might be freed from the other stipulations such as cross-cultural perspective or the emphasis on writing that comes with a current “Core” course.

4. The Writing Problem

Just as not all faculty members are comfortable with the cross-cultural, big-picture perspective required by the Core, so too are many faculty members uncomfortable with the teaching of writing. Most artists, social scientists, and natural scientists simply aren’t trained to do it, so the idea that the writing intensive Core courses should be available in each area of the Core has led to courses in which writing faculty members are asked to support the primary instructors. Writing is thus off-loaded onto these instructors and to the writing workshop sessions of these courses, often leading to a instructional experience that seems fragmented to students.

While true team-teaching should be encouraged in the Core, the deployment of writing faculty as support staff is a practice that has proven to be largely unsuccessful. We need to ensure that the emphasis on writing is truly integrated into the pedagogy of course and taught by the course instructor or, in the case of a team-taught course, instructors. Reducing the number of “Core” courses and shifting the primary responsibility for the development of “skills” to other courses within the curriculum would have the added benefit of freeing up time for each NYUAD student to enroll in a dedicated writing course in the first year.

To Conclude

The framework I am suggesting would solve most of the logistical problems that currently hamper the Core and would allow the Core Director and Curriculum Committee to concentrate on developing a truly visionary set of “questions” courses that would be the signature offerings within NYU Abu Dhabi’s curriculum.

The framework, however, is open and leaves many important questions to be settled by NYUAD’s faculty and the Director of the Core. For example, should a “permissive” approach be taken to the “Core” courses, with faculty members free to suggest courses based on problems and questions that appeal to them? Or should the curated slate of courses be more “prescriptive,” focusing on a finite set of questions that the Core Committee identifies as the questions for a twenty-first century undergraduate to consider? Which skills should be chosen for the skills requirement? Should the number of skills courses be limited to four, once the requirement can be met through major courses and general elective courses? Which courses would satisfy the “skills” requirements and to what extent should the divisions make available courses intended primarily for non-majors in support of this requirement?

Above all, a Core Curriculum conceived as a combination of courses and requirements, that abolishes increasingly artificial distinctions between its courses, and that makes the optimum use of its faculty’s interests, expertise, and skills would be a worthy 2.0 upgrade to the present system.

Author’s Note: When Harvard University decided to revise its thirty-year old Core Curriculum, it started an open, university-wide dialogue on the subject and asked prominent professors to present position-papers about the challenges and opportunities of  general education. Although the program they ultimately devised looks very different from NYUAD’s Core, the reports and papers that were produced during the process make fascinating reading for anyone interested in twenty-first-century global liberal arts education. Click here for the committee report Curricular Renewal in Harvard College and here for the essays on general education by Harvard faculty members.


Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of Literature at NYUAD and Associate Professor of English at NYU. He is the author most recently of Emergent U.S. Literatures: From Multiculturalism to Cosmopolitanism in the Late Twentieth Century (NYU Press, 2014) and Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination (Palgrave 2015). He recently recorded a “Conversation” for NYUAD’s Salaam Blog and participated in a New York Times “Room for Change” forum on global campuses.

Next in our Roundtable: NYUAD senior Lauren Horst on reading dead white males. [Read now.]