The Forum | General Education

Intern Blog: Want Heightened Sensitivity on College Campuses? Reintroduce a Core Curriculum

August 26, 2016

In recent years, college campuses have been riven by controversies: literature purges, campus uprisings, “Freedom Budgets,” and more. Increasingly, administrators have turned to sensitivity training as a solution to the upheaval. The goal of these training sessions is to make people more considerate of each other’s sensibilities; in practice, the sessions are having a chilling effect on students’ speech rights and distorting what it means to be sensitive. Take UCLA, for example, where faculty leaders were told in their training sessions that phrases such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “I think the most qualified person should get the job” were microaggressions that should be avoided.

The premise underlying sensitivity training is, in theory, admirable: University administrators aim to create safe and tolerant environments for students and staff alike. But there is a better way. Instead of training students to be sensitive, it might be more fruitful to educate them to be sensitive. Rather than censoring their students’ speech, universities could (and should) leverage their educational resources to broaden students’ horizons. In particular, they should reintroduce a proper core curriculum—one that introduces and exposes students to different cultural perspectives and ideas.

In shifting away from sensitivity training, colleges and universities can achieve similar ends through far more productive and far less intrusive means. The aims of sensitivity training include, for example, “increased understanding, insight, and self-awareness about one’s own behavior and its impact on others,” and “increased understanding and sensitivity about the behavior of others.” Sensitivity training may accomplish these goals, but so would a proper liberal arts education.

In particular, themes of sensitivity training recur in many humanities classes, as course descriptions show. Kennesaw State University, for example, offers a language class that has the course objective of teaching students “to interpret and reflect upon the perspectives of the target culture.” Murray State University has a history course, the “American Experience since 1865,” with the class goal of teaching students “the connections among the perspectives of a culture and its practices and products.” Creighton University’s students can take a world literature class that specifies in its syllabus the goal of promoting “an understanding of the works in their cultural/historical contexts and of the enduring human values which unite the different literary traditions.” Even a composition course at California State University–Los Angeles emphasizes self-awareness by exploring “identity formation” and by engaging students in “group discussions and activities to develop critical perspectives.”

Real sensitivity training comes through substantive learning, not artificial exercises. While none of the academic courses mentioned above are explicitly designed to increase students’ sensitivity, they do expose students to a wide array of ideas and cultures, creating the foundation for a better, more tolerant learning environment. A return to rigorous core curricula would ensure the sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding colleges and universities seek, while preserving freedom of expression on campuses.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the last in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Nayeli is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is pursuing her degree in English and history.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More