Magazine article Insight on the News

Higher Learning: As Many Institutions Embrace Academic Fads, Insight Finds 30 Top Schools That Still Embrace the Western Academic Tradition. Leading the Way Is St. John's College. (Cover Story)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Higher Learning: As Many Institutions Embrace Academic Fads, Insight Finds 30 Top Schools That Still Embrace the Western Academic Tradition. Leading the Way Is St. John's College. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

The great American poet Robert Frost, who attended Dartmouth and Harvard and taught at Amherst, had his own idea about what college should be. For Frost, college was "the chance to read the books you should have read in high school."

The term "core curriculum" wasn't in use when the poet made that claim more than 80 years ago, but what Frost saw those further four years of study as providing was precisely what educators today call a core curriculum--a group of courses that a college or university requires all of its students to take in order to graduate, whatever their personal choice for a major happens to be.

In those courses, all students read the same books, taken usually from a list of works regarded as the "Great Books," the products of the world's best minds from Plato and Confucius on down to William Faulkner and Albert Einstein.

It's a concept profoundly opposed to what's standard fare on many college campuses these days where students select from a wide range of courses to fulfill elective requirements. At most colleges, students rarely study the same pattern of subjects as others at their school and usually avoid the Great Books, which are reputed among undergraduates to be difficult.

At the very center of the strongest argument for a good core curriculum is the notion that no one's education is complete unless they've encountered these books and made some effort to master them. And what better time to read them than when you're young and have the time and inclination?

Columbia University has the strongest core curriculum among Ivy League schools. All Columbia freshmen take the same core courses. The University of Chicago had a very famous core, at least until recently, when the college announced that this academic year the 20 sections of the yearlong required course, "The History of Western Civilization," would be reduced to two sections. That change provoked an enormous outcry among Chicago alumni and students, and eventually may be revoked.

Many smaller schools have core curricula too, including most of the colleges on INSIGHT'S list of top-30 colleges and universities. One of them, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., offers a four-year plan of study that's styled "to produce wisdom in the souls and in the intellects of the men and women who are educated here; real knowledge of the principles which undergird knowledge," according to Tom Susanka, the college's director of admissions.

But the oldest, most complete and most famous of Great Books programs was begun at handsome, 18th-century St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., in 1937 and has been running ever since. Largely the brainchild of two scholars, philosopher Scott Buchanan (who served as the school's dean) and String-fellow Barr (a historian who was the college's president between 1937 and 1946), the St. John's program requires that students read roughly 130 works during their four years at college. In 1964, St. John's set up a second campus, this time in Santa Fe, N.M., that pursues precisely the same curriculum as its parent school.

In the first year, a St. John's student takes up the ancient Greeks, beginning with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey [see "The Four-Year `Great Books' Study Plan of St. John's College"]. Readings as diverse as the Bible and essays by the 16th-century French writer Montaigne comprise the second. Their junior year, students tackle Cervantes' Don Quixote, works by philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, among other greats. During their final year at the college, seniors turn to the founding documents of the United States, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and to 19th- and 20th-century authors: Sigmund Freud on psychoanalysis, for example, Twain's Huckleberry Finn and works by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. …

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