A Core Curriculum's Changing Fate

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 11, 2009 | Go to article overview
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A Core Curriculum's Changing Fate


Once upon a time, the typical college humanities program had an identifiable linear structure that didn't much differ from one in the natural sciences. The teacher in an advanced course had a good idea of what you already knew that could be used in addressing the next new assigned work. Eventually, you had to have attained some familiarity with what were called the major works by the major authors. Along with shared familiarity, there were shared values. It was assumed that the teacher and the students could jointly distinguish a great work from a not-so-great work. It didn't matter that a great work might also be a work that was difficult to understand owing either to the complexity of its meanings or the remoteness of its historical moment from that of the student.

Coping with a difficult work was interesting, pleasurable and good for your self-esteem. Your confidence didn't need to be - and usually wasn't - enhanced by the teacher in some other way, such as by having the latter very concerned to assign only works that one could be reasonably sure that the students would like and could easily relate to. By extension, the agreed-upon values of these great works supported your sense of the value of the courses where they were being considered and discussed. Population in English courses swelled. So did the number of literary books that were bought and sold, even if they were difficult. The love of literature was abroad in the land.

In A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam illuminates the history of that time ...with special emphasis on the so-called Great Books movement in America that took its first tentative steps in the early 1920s and then held sway from about 1940 until the

late-1960s Vietnam War era when anti-authoritarian fervor, as exemplified by campus riots at Columbia, Berkeley and Harvard, decisively changed things

With a good deal of humor and gusto, Mr. Beam shows how this movement was colored by the merely human character traits of such persons as Mortimer Adler of Columbia and Robert Maynard Hutchins of Yale and the latter's Yale classmate, the publishing huckster and one-time senator from Connecticut, William Benton.

The idea of a so-called core curriculum or set of required courses in the humanities spread from Columbia where Adler was first teaching in the mid-1920s to the University of Chicago, beginning in 1929 when the young, handsome and brilliant Hutchins became its innovative president. Eventually other universities including Yale and Harvard concurred that there was a body of humanistic thought and awareness contained in Western civilization that every well-educated person should know before going out into the real world ...

and they made changes in their own course programs accordingly

In the late 1930s, St. John's College was founded in Annapolis by associates of Adler and Hutchins as a place where the core curriculum could be the whole curriculum ... for all four years

of a student's sojourn It happily survives to this day. In accordance with the belief that the Great Books could help us to lead better lives, programs were also set up to serve segments of the general public outside the colleges; and some of these happily survive as well.

The movement always had its critics within the academic community. Professors in foreign literature departments - insisted that a work should always be read in its original language, not an option for most students when the goal is gaining a general understanding of the most influential works in the whole of Western civilization. Scientists and historians of science advised against the inclusion of texts by past scientists like Galileo and Newton on the, to me, debatable ground that their ideas, unlike those of literary artists, were rendered obsolete by later developments in the sciences.

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A Core Curriculum's Changing Fate


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