By Paul Weisser
Education. From Plato’s Republic to Rousseau’s Emile and down to the present day, education presents one of the primary political and cultural dilemmas. We have long recognized its formative role, its peerless ability to shape the minds of coming generations, to form them into citizens of all sorts: leaders, artists, poets, soldiers, businessmen, scientists, and naturally, more teachers. We recognize its import, its ability to attend to manifold problems across our society, and we spend countless hours and considerable budgets perfecting it. And the nagging fact is that humanity has never gotten it completely right.
For me, it is heartening to see this ongoing debate materializing in a particular, practical way here at Saint Vincent. When speaking to both professors and students, I am encouraged to hear the range of strong opinions on this topic, and to know the value this community places upon the proper education. But what is proper for us here at Saint Vincent?
Like many other students, I am critical of the core in its current state. I agree with Jonathan and Matthew* and many others that it is currently cumbersome and rather aimless. So when considering how it ought to be amended, we must ask ourselves: what ought this education instill in students? What sort of people and citizens should it form?
"This transformation would repair what seems to me to be a vital weakness of our current core: a complete lack of cohesion and purpose."
As Jonathan indicated in his article, this education must provide students with skills essential to their success in their respective fields: concise writing, research capabilities, critical processing of new information and ideas – generally the ability to think and express oneself. But in addition to these fundamental skills, students should be encountering the exact same materials in a smaller but uniform curriculum. This would form a true core of knowledge to which we can all refer and to which each of us can connect our particular area of expertise.
This transformation would repair what seems to me to be a vital weakness of our current core: a complete lack of cohesion and purpose. Under the current system, one could craft numerous four-year schedules with only three classes in common (first philosophy and theology, and language and rhetoric). This cafeteria approach to the liberal arts demands a high number of credits with little regard for the knowledge those credits actually impart upon students. Instead of the current core, which allows aimless choices, I propose a model similar to that of Saint John’s College in Annapolis for our core. Students at Saint John’s all major in the liberal arts, with identical schedules. This grants every student a common knowledge of the most essential topics in history, philosophy, science, and theology. A reference to Plato or to Newton is universally understood; students share course topics and can discuss them for better comprehension or to connect them to other themes. While I would not advise a completely static core such as this, I think the general model ought to be adopted.
In terms of the specific content of my ideal core, I would propose something rather similar to Jonathan’s in his recent article, or the course sequence required by the Aurelius Scholars. Every student should take the same courses in philosophy, theology, language and rhetoric, Western history, mathematics, and science (for science I might propose two courses which survey the basics of biology, chemistry, and physics). The language requirement and the fine arts requirement should be kept, and be the only core courses subject to individual choice. The goal of this core must be to grant each student a cursory knowledge of Western history, thought, and literature, as well as the rudiments of scientific and mathematical inquiry.
Necessary to the success of this system is a uniformity of syllabi within those required courses. For example, the material covered in two different first philosophy classes may vary widely. This prevents access to the shared set of knowledge which I believe the liberal arts ought to promote. From a practical standpoint, as a tutor, this presents significant issues. I am unable to guarantee legitimate assistance to students of first philosophy or principles of American politics if I am continually unsure of the material they are required to know. Though these courses bear the same names, the permutations taught by different professors vary widely. To contribute to this core of knowledge which Saint Vincent students ought to have, these departments ought to develop standard syllabi and reading lists, to grant each student the same experience and the same knowledge, which can be reliably referred to in upper level classes.
The objection to this system likely runs as follows: by standardizing the core completely, you rob both students and professors of the freedom to teach and learn what they want. Your standard curriculum forces me to take a basic course while I would prefer to take an upper level course of greater importance to my studies. To these objections, I have a few replies. First, I support the ability to test out of the standard class. If you can demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the topics this course is designed to teach, you ought to be allowed to take another. Second, due to the reduced size of the core, students are afforded greater freedom to take additional classes out of pure interest. When I was deciding to major in philosophy, Dr. Krom reminded me that college is perhaps the only time I have the freedom to study such things for my own edification. My small core permits this, allowing students who enjoyed an introductory class to learn more in upper levels. Furthermore, by removing the requirement to take upper level course, I believe these courses would become far more enjoyable. Professors could teach to a room they know is engaged with the topic, and, since they can assume the basic knowledge of an introductory course, explore more advanced topics. The small, standardized core actually allows a greater freedom to take advanced classes out of pure interest, while simultaneously improving the quality of those classes due to the students’ interest.
"As educated people preparing to enter the workforce or continue our education, we ought to be in contact with the basic ideas and history of the West."
Generally, I see two main benefits deriving from this system. The first is the increased ability to communicate with each other which I already cited. Currently, it is likely, even probable, that aside from the trio of first philosophy and theology and language and rhetoric, a student in the Boyer School and I do not have a single class in common. This excessive diversity of schedules prevents notable intellectual conversation between disciplines, an enduring goal of liberal arts. If the liberal arts grant me knowledge in various topics, for the purpose of understanding other disciplines, then how is it that I am unable to communicate intellectually with a significant portion of my college peers? We need knowledge that is held in common, to increase the intellectual discussion on this campus, particularly between departments and schools. A fully standardized core, with required courses in theology, philosophy, history, science, English, and mathematics allows fundamental knowledge to truly become common knowledge for conversation. Having a common touchstone in Galileo or Descartes allows me to communicate with a science major, as we can relate the basic ideas we encountered in our core classes to the advanced material we pursue in our own departments. We need shared knowledge, and not merely skilled writing, to truly communicate with our academic colleagues in other fields.
The second purpose I detect goes beyond the classroom. As educated people preparing to enter the workforce or continue our education, we ought to be in contact with the basic ideas and history of the West. References and remnants of this tradition abound; it permeates our world though we often remain unaware of it. We must understand our historical and philosophical heritage if we truly wish to be considered educated individuals. The topics covered in my proposed core educate students concerning the events and ideas which built the world we live in, and continue to inspire and actuate us. We fail to understand our world if we do not view it from this broader perspective, if we do not attempt to recognize our place as inheritors of this rich tradition. The core I propose will educate us in the legacy of the West, introducing us to its fundamental tenets and providing the knowledge and the tools to act in this world. None of us can assist the world or its people while we remain ignorant of its past and its knowledge; therefore to live and act well, we need this core of knowledge in that tradition.
* Editor’s Note: See the pieces Liberal Arts Does Not Require A Large Core by senior writer Jonathan Meilaender and In Defense of the Core by editor-in-chief Matthew Wojtechko from issue 7 of this year and on our website.
Paul Weisser is a senior politics and philosophy major, and intends to become a college politics professor following graduate school.