The Saga of St. Joseph's: A Core Curriculum That Works

By O'Brien, Dennis | Commonweal, March 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Saga of St. Joseph's: A Core Curriculum That Works


O'Brien, Dennis, Commonweal


The last day of January, three hours out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and I am driving across a snowy Indiana landscape under a darkening sky to fulfill a speaking assignment. Having written a book titled The Idea of a Catholic University, I have given several talks sponsored by the Commonweal Speakers Program at Catholic colleges and universities. Tonight's talk, on the relation of Catholicism to higher education, is at St. Joseph's College in Renssalaer, Indiana.

Driving instructions: "Off Interstate 65 onto Indiana 114; turn on Main St.; the college gate is just opposite the Wal-Mart." It is 5 p.m. I pass a line of barren trees and spot the looming towers of a large church to the left and a scattering of academic buildings to the right. This is St. Joseph's, founded in 1889 by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Today the college has a thousand students and a student-faculty ratio of fifteen to one. Sixty-eight percent of students live on its 180-acre campus; 47 percent are Catholics.

Whether or not anyone learned anything from my talk that evening, I learned a great deal at St. Joseph's about actually doing Catholic higher education. It is all well and good to write a book about the idea of Catholic higher education; it is quite a different thing to see it accomplished on the ground. It turns out that St. Joseph's is not only opposite the Wal-Mart geographically, it is opposite the regnant Wal-Mart philosophy of higher education: college as a supermarket of courses for consumers. St. Joseph's actually has a coherent, comprehensive idea about what constitutes higher education, and it has made it real in an effective--and Catholic--core curriculum.

Consumerism says, "If you want to study x, we're selling it!" A core curriculum says, "This is what you need to study to be truly educated." A core presumably identifies what is "higher" in higher education. Traditionally, educators assumed there was a hierarchy of studies: some courses were either intellectually or morally more important--or both. The traditional Jesuit theory of higher education, the ratio studiorum, offered a progression of courses that led eventually to the overarching disciplines of philosophy and theology. Ninteenth-century Protestant colleges dedicated to classical Greek and Latin culminated in a course on ethics taught by the college president. Both the ratio studiorum and the study of ancient texts as a door to ethical instruction withered during the latter half of the nineteenth century as a result of the introduction of multiple electives into the fixed classical curriculum. Much good has been accomplished by expanding the restrictive curricula of the past, but it is no surprise that with so many equivalently valued disciplines now on the field, arriving at a core for the curriculum has seemed nearly impossible.

Battles over the core have become commonplace, with the usual solution being to set up "distribution requirements." Each of the major disciplinary contenders is given a piece of the action. A common model requires that students take two courses in each of three divisions--the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. These distribution requirements create the illusion of a core, but the modes and methods of study under such broad categories are so disparate that one wonders if anything fundamental has been achieved. Am I doing the humanities whether I analyze Aristotle's Metaphysics or Milton's prosody? And the sciences are no better. Astronomy is highly theoretical, biology highly observational. The social sciences in turn seem consumed with quarrels about proper methodology: Which science should be required? Does history belong in social science or the humanities?

The old ratio studiorum not only ranged through various disciplines; it also sought to locate the disciplines in an architectonic structure. Multiple electives and vague distribution requirements may maximize choice for the student-consumer, but the real question for education is whether the role of choice itself needs to be examined. …

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