Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Core Is Mother, The Core Is Father

Through the four years I was there, there was a low level war being constantly waged among faculty at Franciscan University over whether the university should have a humanities core curriculum, and if so, what form it should take. From the trickles I've heard back, five years later the war continues to this day.

Since most of the small set of strongly Catholic liberal arts colleges (Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, Magdalene, Ave Maria, I'm sure I'm missing one or two...) have a core curriculum (or in the case of TAC are a core curriculum), Steubenville has always seemed to feel a little inadequate about the topic.

I remain unsure what to think about the core curriculum idea. On the one hand, I do feel strongly that people are better educated (as people, as Catholics, as citizens) if they have a basic grounding in literature, philosophy, theology and history. On the other hand, the problem with having specific courses which everyone is required to take is that there is a tendency for the quality of those courses to gravitate towards the median skill and interest level of those students. Which is why one generally tried never to take a 101 level course in a topic one is actually interested in -- such courses are far too often tailored to the needs of those who are not interested, and refuse to become so.

It annoyed me no end in college that my Business and Computer Science major friends tended to treat the humanities in general with "How do you say, 'would you like fries with that' in Latin?" derision. Indeed, it still annoys me quite a bit to hear people assert that no responsible man who wants to be a provider for his family would get anything other than a technical degree. (Though now I always get told "except for you, of course" since I've proved my worth by getting paid to do things they don't exactly understand with marketing analytics.) But the fact is that requiring these people to read Homer and Dante or Plato and Aquinas would not change their minds -- it would just result in having more disruptive students in literature and philosophy classes. Many people in the world aren't terribly interested in acquiring a classical education, and I'm not sure that making them do so against their inclination would actually help a whole lot.

I suppose the whole thing goes back to whether most people actually go to college to get an education, or just to get training. Surely, I think everyone would be better of with an education rather than technical training. And given that few people are collected enough to fully know their own minds at the age of 18 or 19, maybe requiring them to take a core curriculum may be the best way to introduce them to the elements of their culture that they would not otherwise seek out. And yet I have a hard time wishing a bunch of computer science students who would raise their hands and say, "You may know what an essence is, but five years from now I'll be making twice what you are and you'll still be teaching annoying kids like me" on anyone...


Jen Ambrose said...

It always surprises me when students in a scientific or technical discipline complain about their core curriculum courses at a liberal arts college because, well, it wasn't like the distribution requirements were a secret when they matriculated.
I can see the benefit to having a liberal arts requirement even for science and engineering students. Once we get out into the "world" the skillset cultivated through working through abstract algebra proofs and writing lab reports for physics can't take you through your work day, let alone real life outside of work. The biggest is the ability to communicate, either in writing or in speech, ideas convincingly and without relying on jargon. This requires a creative command of language that isn't exactly nurtured in solving line integrals. I have encountered a lot of engineers in my former life that were stuck in non-advancement roles because of their inability to overcome their engineeriness.
Another thing is that no one has any idea what life is going to throw at them (duh). Liberal arts can help open up the world, if that doesn't sound too trite. For instance, my stepson started his studies at a top-ten ranked engineering school that does not have a serious core-curriculum other than a once-a-year composition-type class. He ended them in a state university program that also had no core requirement but very strong engineering courses. He was not interested in literature or history classes anyway, so he was happy with both programs. He has zero interest in international travel and domestic travel that might take him near a city. He is very uncomfortable engaging people from other countries or even other parts of this country. These are things that are a given today if you are in manufacturing. This is seriously hampering his ability to "move-up" as is his desire. Maybe it wouldn't have worked with him, but I sometimes wonder if he had to take even a few humanities courses he might be a little "open." It would translate into less frustration and more money for him.
Of course, all of my arguments here are in the cost-benefit category. This category is easy to understand. But no one can predict what skillset will serve them best in life, either at work or in their real outside-of-work life. Just as it would be ridiculous for an undergraduate to focus so heavily on one aspect of their major at the expense of the breadth of exposure, why isn't it equally ridiculous to limit yourself so narrowly within what can be known?

Fred said...

"You may know what an essence is, but five years from now I'll be making twice what you are and you'll still be teaching annoying kids like me" on anyone...
you might be surprised. I had a guy with exactly that profile in the Comp I class that I taught at a Jesuit University. He was so happy and eager to learn about stuff he'd neglected in high school.

There's more to life than money and students in these schools should be invited to embrace the totality that a university aspires to.

Anonymous said...

Heh. Funny you should bring up the topic, because there was just a big hullabaloo at U Dallas because the president had made a proposal that we should allow in business majors with a scaled-back version of the core. (Currently, about half of all classes that a student takes here are core classes.)

Lower-level classes can be annoying, especially when filled with people who don't want to be taking them--in my first semester lit class I was one of the only two people who ever spoke up in class. Most of the others were reading Spark Notes or openly napping. On the other hand, it *is* possible to have good core classes; while I can't say much for the students, the teacher of that first lit class was very good, and no easy grader.

I think you *can* have good academics in core classes, but if you do, you will end up with only the students who want that kind of curriculum or who are willing to endure it. Almost every student in my first lit class dropped out, which was really not much a surprise. (I still wonder why they came here in the first place, when they knew that they wouldn't just have to read Homer and Virgil but take four philosophy courses as well.) So if you have a hard-core core, you won't end up convincing (many) training-oriented students to read the classics.

Anonymous said...


The other big advantage of a core program, IMHO, is that it's a great way of building community. Not that this is the summum bonum of a college, but it is rather exciting when your entire class is reading Homer at the same time. (Not to mention that it really helps with the brainwashing... whoops, did I say that out loud?)