Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

hello-wordleIt’s January, in an obscure New York diner, where I’m meeting a close friend from high school, now a student at Yale. We haven’t seen each other for a year, and complaining about how difficult my Arabic class is seemed like a perfect icebreaker.

“I told you so. That’s why I stopped believing in studying foreign languages,” he says, nonchalantly, as if talking about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

“What do you mean by ‘I don’t believe in studying foreign languages’?”

“I just stopped. I realized that it took me ten years to become comfortable with my German and speak it as well as I speak Arabic or English. I did Italian for two years now, and I just don’t feel like I’m fluent. I can’t express myself in the way my thoughts actually flow. You understand what I mean?”

With only slightly better Italian than his, I was teaching it to beginners, so no, I didn’t understand.

“The time I’d invest in learning a foreign language I could use to learn a skill that is tangible, can make money and all of that,” he said.

The food came and we changed the topic. I left the restaurant wondering about the purpose of studying a foreign language. I started to question my decision to dedicate a huge portion of my college experience to studying a language that I might end up “not feeling comfortable with.” And then I wondered, in an era in which everyone speaks English, why bother with anything else?

Unfortunately, my friend’s opinion is shared among many other educated people, many of whom are not themselves monolingual. Michael Long, an expert at the University of Maryland, says that only a tiny minority of post-adolescent learners will attain near-native proficiency in another language. George Orwell, despite speaking seven languages said that he didn’t believe in foreign language instruction.[1]

So who does believe in language instruction? Europeans. In all the European countries except Wales and Italy, students must learn a foreign language throughout their compulsory education.[2] The literature on the benefits of bilingualism is vast: it improves your decision-making skills, increases brainpower, improves your employability, memory and interestingly, your English.

For me the debate is more personal. The language of my heart will always be my native Serbian, but I know that with every new language that I learn, I gain a new mind-set. With Italian, I picked up idioms that I can’t translate into English, precisely because they represent a reflection of Italian culture that is only comes with immersion, with the language itself. For example, Italians often say “Se devi fare una cosa, falla tutta” when they talk about their experiences. This idiom cannot be translated smoothly into English, but it roughly translates to “If you are to do something, do it completely.” Italians are such passionate people — the “all-or-nothing” type — and this idiom mirrors their mentality perfectly. The same applies to “I cavoli riscaldati,” which literally means “reheated cabbage,” but is used to describe a love affair revived. As this idiom reveals, Italians regard the “old-new” relationship as messy, stale and not worth getting into.

The differences between the languages are complicated, but make close reading in translation much more debatable and, to us literature geeks, more pleasurable. Close reading of my favorite Serbian poet, for example, is almost impossible in English as all of his work focuses on discussing the difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” concepts that are merged together and simplified to “feelings” in English. But there is a big difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” and you would be surprised how much knowing to differentiation between these two can influence your view on relationships. “Oсећај” is a feeling that derives either from satisfying an instinct or from anything related to physicality. If I were to touch you, for example, the result would be an “осећај:” you would feel my touch. If you were to sleep with a person you’re attracted to, you would still have an “осећај” because you do have “feelings” for him even though these feelings are inextricably linked to your sexual pleasure. “Oсећање,” however, is a feeling used strictly with the concept of love. You have feelings for your spouse, your relatives, close friends. “Oсећање” is always a spiritual connection, and preferably a lasting one.

In his poem “An Honest Poem,” Milan Rakic tries to tell a woman that he has “осећај” for her, but not “oсећање.” At the time when the poem was written, extramarital sexual intercourse was a taboo, and talking about them made Rakic a controversial poet. You can’t discuss Rakic without discussing this problem. Let’s take a look at the excerpts from the original and the translation:

O, sklopi usne, ne govori, ćuti,

ostavi misli nek se bujno roje,

i reč nek tvoja ničim ne pomuti

bezmerno silne osećaje moje.

O, close your lips, don’t talk, be silent,

let your thoughts pollulate,

and may your word do nothing to obfuscate

my unmeasurably deep feelings.

In the first stanza, the poet says that he has “unmeasurably deep feelings” for a woman that woke up next to him. A bit later he says something that to an English speaker could seem contradictory:

Za taj trenutak života i milja,

kad zatreperi cela moja snaga,

neka te srce moje blagosilja.

Al’ ne volim te, ne volim te, draga!

For that moment of life and delight,

In which all my strength trembles,

may my heart bless you.

But I don’t love you, I don’t love you, my dear!

What happened to the “unmeasurably deep feelings” we just read about? Nothing. They are still there, but they are coming from spiritual love. The whole poem is about how “осећај” can be beautiful and grand, but is not an “oсећање.” The two should be recognized as different and that is the only way that we can have healthy relationships. I can’t even count all of my girlfriends who got into (now failed) relationships with someone for whom they had an “осећај,” but thought they had love for.

English speakers sometimes seem confused when you ask them if they have feelings for someone they are considering getting into a relationship with. I never met a Serbian with the same problem. Serbians can have feelings while waiting for an”oсећање” to form. You have more time to figure things out before making a decision about declaring your feelings.

I don’t have a single argument that will make you believe that learning another language in the future will be profitable, but I can assure you that the beauty that you will start seeing after being exposed to a new system of forming communication will enrich you forever. Imagine how impressed your Russian business partner would be if you spoke to him in Russian. He would feel that you understand them better, be more open to compromise and more trusting. Knowing a foreign language in this situation seems like such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. If anything, learn a foreign language to defy the notion that all you do has to have a tangible outcome, and you will be a step closer to what we all want to achieve in life: purpose and happiness.

(And of course, if you learn Serbian, you could finally figure out what you “feel” for that person you started seeing recently.)


[1] Simon Kuper, Learning another language? Don’t bother.

[2] The Benefits of Second Language Study.

A Few Reflections about Global Education at NYUAD

A Few Reflections about Global Education at NYUAD


Life is such a mystery. Never in my wildest imagination did I envision that someday I might be teaching in the Middle East, after two decades of teaching in law schools and religious studies programs in the United States and Europe. Yet here I am in the UAE, as a member of the faculty of NYU Abu Dhabi. While the fields of law and religious studies may seem to be unlikely consorts, they coalesce in religious systems of law such as Talmudic law, Hindu law, sharia law, and canon law. Moreover, the roots of secular Western legal systems may be traced to the medieval canon law and its unity with theology. The comparative and cross-disciplinary focus of my scholarship describes religion and law as social institutions that play a major role in setting the conditions for either a static, punitive, and repressive social order or a merciful, enlightened, and transformative one in which individuals and communities may flourish. This focus seems to me to be a good fit with the aims of global education embraced by NYU Abu Dhabi.

One of the courses that I teach, Ideas of the Sacred, introduces the students to the world’s major religious traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. These religious traditions are great rivers of humanity, and I think that every broadly educated person ought to have knowledge of them. One’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are often intimate and located deep within the inner sanctum of one’s consciousness, and for some human beings, these beliefs contribute to the core of personal and communal identity. Students familiar with each of the world’s religious traditions that are discussed have participated in the course. Our classroom discussions have consistently been characterized by zeal for learning, respect for others, and openness to various ideas about what might be considered sacred. I said the course “introduces the students,” but all of us in the course learn from each other. I could not ask for a better place to teach a course in comparative religion. In a world where religion is sometimes depicted primarily as a cause of intolerance and violence, I think that this counter-example, created by the idea of global education, offers a glimpse of hope.

Another course that I teach is called What is Law? At the start of the course, I tell the students not to expect a catharsis: law is fundamentally a human activity, and the sundry essentialist, sociological, and ideological responses to the course’s central question are inevitably limited. Again, the diversity of our student body brings so many varied perspectives about the meaning and purpose of law, which serves as a poignant reminder that law is pluralistic and not just the hegemonic domain of a given predominant culture, nation, or linguistic experience. At the same, there often emerges in our discussion a desire for a common humanity that might serve as the moral justification for fundamental human rights. That desire reminds me of when I served as a member of the treaty conference which established the International Criminal Court. I was privilege to be one among hundreds of representatives of the various nations of the world gathered together at the United Nations to create an international legal institution whose basis is rooted in a common humanity. Some of my students will likely become lawyers, maybe even judges or other kinds of government officials. I hope that we are offering the academic and social context in which they mature as fair, just, compassionate, and socially responsible human persons. Forgive me if I sound overly idealistic, but I am a person who believes in the power of the aspirational.

From the very first time that I visited Abu Dhabi three years ago, NYU’s aspirations about global education were readily apparent to me. Located at the crossroads of the world, NYUAD brings together a talented student body drawn from the four corners of the earth.  The university’s financial aid policy is such that no student is excluded because of an inability to pay. NYUAD also attracts top quality faculty who are committed to teaching and engaged in fascinating research; from the start of my tenure here, I have been intellectually and personally enriched by the opportunity to interact with colleagues from all parts of the NYU Global University as well as from other institutions of higher education. In an academically rigorous environment, students and faculty transcend the parameters of discrete disciplines in order to develop new understandings of complex problems. At their core, the fields of law and religious studies are about human persons. The multidisciplinary approach seeks to deepen our understanding of the identities, values, cultures, languages, behaviors, histories, and social contexts of individuals and communities that comprise the human situation. The mystery of life continues to unfold for me, and two years into my service at NYUAD, I feel grateful and humbled to be a small part of this great venture in global education.

John Coughlin is Professor of Religious Studies and Law at NYU Abu Dhabi. He holds a Th.M. from Princeton Seminary, a J.D. from Harvard University Law School, and the  J.C.L. and J.C.D. from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

[Image: Detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-11), Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican), depicting Plato and Aristotle.]

Budding Scholars

Budding Scholars


In a speech delivered to workers in Wisconsin last year,  US President Barack Obama kindled a controversial debate on the value of an art history degree, and the liberal arts in general, when he “promise[d]… folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” I am studying art history and literature at NYUAD, but until the journalistic fallout from this comment, I had never thought about what statistical analyses predict I will earn after college: comparing my future salary to that of a trade worker was an especially novel and shocking exercise.

That is not to say my peers studying finance or engineering do not use my majors as the set-up for punch lines about living in my parents’ basement or serving veggie burgers. But, naive as it sounds, I had never seriously considered college as a place to do anything other than study what I love so that, eventually, I could do what I love.

The keyword in my last sentence is “eventually.” I think a liberal arts education — and the humanities in particular — provides the opportunity for students to discover what they want to spend most of their life thinking about. We stand to gain many tools from this model: critical thinking, accountability, quality, confidence, and professional connections, to name a few. But learning to think theoretically does not necessarily prepare students for job interviews or on-the-job requirements, a model that of course is not accidental. My theory is that the hope of NYUAD curriculum designers, including faculty and administration, is that students will turn into professional people, rather than people trained to work in particular professions.

Core curricula exemplify the attempts that liberal arts institutions make to balance or round out students’ educations, even as students feel increasing pressure to specialize in fields that will land them high-paying jobs. At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Core Curriculum is a selection of eight required courses that, as its website claims, helps students “probe basic questions about the meaning of life and our place in the world.” Students have restricted choice about which Core courses to take and typically only enroll because they need to tick off those requirements in order to graduate.

I wonder if students do not want to take Core classes because they are required (you say I have to, so I don’t want to) or if they are required because no students would take them otherwise. It strikes me that the courses that the university mandates for all students are the least practical: they are not introductory classes for specific disciplines, but are abstract by design. Students often express regret that their curricula are far removed from the everyday realities they expect in their futures. “I’m never going to have to do this in real life,” I’ve heard my friends say about dreaded “group project” assignments — despite their professors’ warnings that “the real world” is full of group work. Regardless of what our teachers say, this complaint nevertheless illustrates the relationship between the liberal arts university and its student bodies: students often want to go and do, and universities want them to sit and think.

Young adulthood might be the best place to start thinking about my place in the world. But as a young adult, I am also energetic; I want to go make my place in the world, not just think about it. Maybe an overly keen focus on doing what I love is why, as a third-year student, I sometimes feel restless in a classroom or dorm room, “ready” to enter the world and begin what I subconsciously see as my real life.

I wonder if it is a shortcoming of the liberal arts education that I am not particularly prepared to go do the things I love in a professional setting. Some of my peers bemoan the gap in academic and professional success they have experienced or anticipate, but I am tempted to think of my college education as a cultivation of malleability. An art history degree does not guarantee a high-paying job or even job security, with an unemployment rate for recent arts graduates well above the national average, but because it is translatable. After graduation, I can turn my art history or literature degree into a law degree or a job at a start-up bringing my big picture critical thinking skills to bear on specific situations. But those with skill-based backgrounds know their specialty very well may have difficulty applying that knowledge to other fields.

appiah-nyu-philThe liberal arts degree thus becomes an object circulating in a “rooted cosmopolitanism,” to use Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term. That is to say, while my education is rooted in the field of my major, I can use it to navigate the world and its possibilities; I am not less prepared to try my hand at various professional opportunities because I planted myself in the art historical or literary discipline. Rather, my rootedness in one area of specialty, combined with a desire to explore, provides the tools I need to relate to and communicate with the world.

My peers, parents, and President Obama may continue to worry for my future annual salary and employability; I worry for that, too. But I value my degree as a form of intellectual currency rather than a guarantor of any real form of currency. Studying to enter careers with a more reliable annual income, whether as a doctor or electrician, is comparable to receiving a cow instead of a license or diploma. You know that cow has a relatively stable value; you can trade that cow in for a predictable amount of money, maybe more if the conditions are right. But I feel like I will graduate with magic beans in my pocket, a risky but thrilling move. Who knows what fruit they will bear. I’m a believer in NYUAD’s cultivation of a rooted cosmopolitanism, and I trust that even if my beans are not magical, they will sprout.

Veronica Houk is a third-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in literature and art history. She is currently studying at NYU Shanghai.

Next in our Roundtable: John Coughlin, a professor of law and religious studies at NYUAD, reflects on multidisciplinarity and global liberal arts education.

[Images: Barack Obama from; Kwame Anthony Appiah from NYU Philosophy.]

Adding Rigor to the Core Curriculum

Adding Rigor to the Core Curriculum


I believe that the NYUAD Core Curriculum is in need of a major reform. In its current form, I believe it suffers from a lack of rigor, premature interdisciplinarity, and the misapplication of academic “breadth.” Cyrus Patell’s recent proposal on Electra Street is a good one overall. Having gone through the Core Curriculum as a NYUAD student, I would like to offer my thoughts on the current problems with the Core and some warnings for the future.

Lack of Rigor

The Core’s biggest problem is its lack of rigor and intellectual challenge. I found, for example, that Cyrus Patell’s course, “The Cosmopolitan Imagination,” was at the upper bound of difficulty — and even that was an easy class. Two out of my eight Core classes were in the joke category: we had almost nothing to do, and yet we all got good grades. In one of the two, literally everyone got an A; in the other I’m not sure, but have the same suspicion. (I know, with small classes there is a non-negligible chance that everyone happens to be really good — but here it wasn’t the case.)

The classes for my major were definitely much more challenging than my Core classes. I think most students would say the same. If the Core Curriculum really accomplished its goal of teaching “breath,” this pattern should be the other way around: after all, students are forced to take classes outside the area they are most comfortable with.

I may be biased here, because I majored in Math and Economics, and those majors may be harder than others. I did, however, also take a creative writing class and three philosophy classes, and all of them beat the core in rigor. Note that these were introductory classes: just like the Cores, they didn’t assume prior knowledge of the material. The only difference between the Cores and these intro classes was that the latter didn’t go at a snail pace and were more challenging.

While the rigor of Core classes is on average low, there is a lot of variance. The discrepancy between the hardest Core classes and the easiest one is much bigger than the discrepancy in difficulty for major electives. If students want to have an easy time, they can “shop around,” as they can judge the difficulty of a class in the first two weeks (prior to add and drop) relatively easily.

Premature Interdisciplinarity

 I see the attempt to be interdisciplinary as a big liability. True, a researcher who has truly mastered physics and truly mastered biology has the potential to uncover some great insights at the intersection of the two fields. That doesn’t mean, however, that a freshman who doesn’t know any physics and doesn’t know any biology will benefit from a mishmash of the two. In fact, combining two or more disciplines in a meaningful way is hard even for an accomplished professor. I know it sounds good in theory that we are teaching classes that combine, intersect, and interact with different fields of knowledge. At the end of the day however, it leads to courses like a writing intensive quantum theory and relativity class — definitely an unhappy marriage between writing and physics.

The Idea of Breadth

In the Core Curriculum, “breadth” has been interpreted to mean a focus on the arts and humanities. Out of the eight core classes, two are in the “Pathways of World Literature” track and two in the “Arts Technology and Invention” track. The “Structures of Thought and Society” has a strong humanities element as well. Thus, somewhere between four and six Core classes are humanities classes.

Mathematics is strangely missing from the Core. Meanwhile, the science in the “science” track barely scrapes high-school level. If we’re requiring eight Core classes and aiming for true breadth, is it too much to require at least one math class and a stronger emphasis on science? Someone may say that a theater major will never need calculus — true, but a physics major won’t need literature either.

A Speculation

Is it possible that one of the reasons for creating a core structure like the one NYUAD has is administrative? Especially in the first years of the university, there were few standing faculty (especially in the sciences), and the administration may not have had the energy to devise a detailed Core Curriculum. Thus, presenting four somewhat vague tracks; requiring students to take two classes in each; allowing professors to do pretty much what they wanted; and marketing the whole things as “breadth” might have sounded like a very efficient solution.

I don’t intend this speculation to be ironic or sarcastic. In econ lingo, we have to consider “supply” as well as “demand.” Having a structured core requires a lot of time and energy — resources that were needed in other aspects of building a new university.

This idea is pure conjecture on my part, of course: I don’t know if any of it is true.

The Core 2.0 Proposal

I think the overall idea described in the Cyrus Patell’s contribution to this roundtable is a good one, but here are some of my additional thoughts and warnings.

1. The “skills” classes should be on the same level as the first classes in a major. For example, physics for non-majors should be of the same difficulty as the first Foundations of Science Physics class. It may contain slightly different material, but it definitely shouldn’t be a dumped-down version of science. That would be a disservice to the students.

But won’t that mean that non-majors will sweat blood? Yes, but that is a benefit. Everyone knows that in the gym Malibu Ken and Barbie jumps with tiny plates are a waste of time; if you want strength, you will have to sweat a little. I don’t know why we are so hesitant to embrace the intellectual equivalent. I’m not saying that everyone should take graduate level physics classes, but if students can’t even handle the difficulty of an intro class, what is the “breadth” of their knowledge in physics worth? (Needless to say, physics was only an example: the same goes for other subjects).

2. I’m a little unclear about what the four “Big Questions” classes would entail. It does seem to me though that we are trying to invent something new here, and that will probably need a lot of experimentation. To be cautious, I would put the balance to six skills versus two “Big Questions” classes. (Also, I happen to really like the idea of focusing on skills).

3. I think we shouldn’t try to be “balanced” about the requirements of the skills classes. My initial thought about how the skills classes should be distributed is the following: programming, statistics, visual design, calculus, plus two writing classes.

Notice that the mix is quite unbalanced: there are two writing classes, and programming and statistics sound similar as well. Here’s my reasoning. Good writing is hyper-super important in a college education. I don’t mind putting extra focus there (who knows, maybe even three classes…). Statistics and programming are subjects that everyone ought to know in the twenty-first century (for obvious reasons). Meanwhile, I often found visual arts to be very beneficial, and knowing the basics of Photoshop solves a wide number of problems. Finally, calculus is one of the most rigorous quantitative classes students are going to take. (Okay, it’s not that rigorous compared to other math classes, but students will see a fair number of proofs).

Requiring calculus also opens up many doors in other classes, and it gets rid of the coordination problem that many instructors face about how much calculus students know (i.e. if they require it, it gets rid of many students; if they don’t, they can’t fully teach the material; if they do a little bit in class without requiring it, students won’t understand).

This list of classes is just an illustration. Notice, though, that my reasoning didn’t include trying to pay lip service to every possible discipline, asking how we could teach a little bit of each. I believe that we must ask, what are the most useful skills for students to have? Not just job-market type useful, but quality-of-human-being type useful. And if that means that writing, statistics, and programming are on top of the list and anthropology doesn’t even qualify — so be it. Just as there are good reasons not to teach astrology at all.

4. One big benefit: having these skill classes cuts down on the number of core classes students have to take. While there are still eight cores, some could be cross-listed or eliminated. Comp sci major? You don’t need the programming core. Visual arts major? No need for that core.

5. Having skill classes also doesn’t place a big administrative burden. I don’t think there is a need to reinvent the wheel here: we just have to decide which intro classes qualify. To take my list (again, just an illustration), programming could essentially be the “Intro to Computer Science” course. We already have Calculus and Statistics. I’m sure the writing faculty could come up with a two-semester writing program relatively easily. For some classes like programming or statistics, we could have big lectures followed up with small recitations with TAs or GAFs. That’s efficiency.

Thus, if we stick to requiring intro classes (or the equivalent), there is less stress for organizers and administrators. True, it doesn’t sound as sexy as an innovative, creative, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-cultural curriculum, but sometimes the classic, old-fashioned, boring way comes out ahead.

Krisztian Kovacs was a member of NYU Abu Dhabi’s inaugural class and is presently a Global Academic Fellow in Economics and Mathematics at NYU Shanghai.

[Image: Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”]

Next in our Roundtable: NYUAD junior Veronica Houk reflects on the useful pressure created by deadlines.

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Not Dead (White Men) Yet

Not Dead (White Men) Yet


It was some months through my semester in New York before I realized that I didn’t have as strong a grasp on the “classics” as I thought I did. By “classics,” I mean non-contemporary works by mostly white, mostly male authors. “Dead White Men,” so to speak. Sure, I took Classic American Literature once, so I could tell you a little something about Charles Brockden Brown if you needed me to. And I read an adaptation of Beowulf in high school. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything else about Old English, or epics, or what was happening across the pond while Brown was getting his Gothic on.

In other words, I had no sense of literary tradition; there was no narrative arc in the literature electives I had taken. In retrospect, there were some warning signs along the way, moments that would have troubled any other self-respecting literature student. For instance, I only learned in my junior year that Othello isn’t a Greek tragedy, as I had thought; it’s actually a work by Shakespeare. I also learned that The Odyssey not only isn’t the same thing as Othello, but it’s also not written by Virgil. Virgil did The Aeneid.

So I knew there were gaps, but I didn’t really know how much I was missing. No one ever forced me to take the NYUAD course Foundations of Literature, and I wasn’t about to subject myself to authors I wrote off as “Dead White Men.” In New York, however, there was no escape. Classics, by authors mostly male, nearly all white, and all definitely dead, clogged my course syllabi, and I realized I liked reading some of it. I liked the feeling of connecting the dots. And I couldn’t help wondering if, in the name of expanding my worldview and rethinking old conceptual frameworks, I’d missed out on something important. Had I, much like the baby and the bathwater, thrown out the hegemon with the counter-hegemon, the core out with the periphery, the masterminds and masterpieces out with the “Dead White Men.”

I’m a dying breed of lit major at this university. When I started at NYUAD, there weren’t many requirements to the literature major beyond a theory course. There are now two required courses in the literature major called Foundations of Literature, which I obviously never took, was not forced to take, and only now, with less than a semester left of my undergraduate career, wish I had. The younger students in my literature classes aren’t confusing Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. (Or they’re doing a commendable job hiding their confusion.)

Think of me — and my bizarre, decentered, historically backwards literary education — as an interesting case study: How important are “the classics” really? What happens when students skip them altogether? Do they make more interesting connections? Or are they left historically adrift, without any means of drawing connections? Does reading things chronologically matter, or do we just need a sampling of all the pieces?

My editor suggested I have an opinion about these questions, or at least something close to an opinion. So here’s what I think, as someone who attempted to school herself in the “classics”: Foundations are good, and necessary. Devaluing the classics isn’t a path towards valuing the more contemporary revisions, adaptations, rethinkings, and rebuttals. While I understand that it might be more interesting to be purely critical, I have to say that I think Foundations of Literature has got it just about right.

In the end, my case was solvable. I dealt with this situation in the same way that I deal with practically any situation; only in this case, it was probably the right way to deal with the situation. I headed to the library. This was a job for Norton Anthologies, and maybe the occasional Longman edition. And, as tends to happen when you sit in front of a book and move your eyes consistently over the words on the page, I learned things. Did you know, for instance, that Brecht and Beckett are different people? You probably do, but now I do too. And that Yeats — that’s Yeats-with-a-Y, who is not the same person as Keats — wrote things other than the poem from which Chinua Achebe took the title to Things Fall Apart? I know that now too. Gradually, my ability to distinguish between even the Abbreviated Anglo Authors — T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence — improved. Nowadays I feel a little like someone at the eye doctor, finally able to keep straight the “D” from the “O” on the bottom line of an eye chart. Each new author, period, style, that I’ve learned has brought the literary world into focus a little bit more and in new, fun ways, like twists on a kaleidoscope.

At another university, even as a literature major at the College of Arts and Sciences in New York, I suspect my major would have had a different valence to it than it does here at NYUAD. But I didn’t choose to go to the NYU in the Square; I chose to come here. In that respect, I feel fortunate and privileged to have spent four years at NYU Abu Dhabi, among students and professors sympathetic to my literary interests in mostly non-white, non-male, non-dead authors. But you should still force me to read the other guys.

All this discussion of canons leads me to update an old saying: Give a student the literary canon, she thinks for a day; give her the conceptual tools to question the literary canon, she thinks for a lifetime.


Senior Lit major Lauren Horst is writing a capstone project about the Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta and thinking about which doctoral program in literature to attend in the fall.

Next in our Roundtable: NYUAD alumnus Krisztian Kovacs reflects on his experience of the NYUAD Core Curriculum.

NYUAD Core 2.0

NYUAD Core 2.0


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.]