A defense of a diversified core
by Mark Fischer
I have read with great interest the ongoing debate over the University’s core curriculum. My enthusiasm for Dr. Crosby’s recommendations led me to share his ideas with several alumni. To my surprise, none of them fully agreed with Dr. Crosby. I pressed them for reasons and they not only provided them but changed my thinking in the process.
Dr. Crosby’s thesis, echoed in later articles by Jim Fox, Regis Martin and others, is that every University student should be well grounded in “fundamental human knowledge” or “first things.” Mr. Martin emphatically argues that no student should graduate without grappling with the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, Pascal and Augustine and appears to be advocating a “great books” approach to the core curriculum. The goal of these proposals is a core that imparts to the students a sense of the “unity of knowledge,” a goal with which no reasonable mind could disagree. My concern, then, is not with the goal but with the means employed to achieve it.
Admittedly, I am at a disadvantage in this discussion. I do not know the terms of the proposals actually under consideration by the University, and the articles by Dr. Crosby, Dr. Martin and Mr. Fox are somewhat short on specifics. It is hard to resist a clarion call for more Shakespeare and Homer, or an effort to supply students with a body of foundational knowledge. Nevertheless, I ask that those pressing for change reflect carefully before they reject the University’s present program, and seriously consider the possible effects of their proposal on a very diverse student body.
Until quite recently, universities were almost exclusively dedicated to the “liberal” disciplines of history, literature, theology, philosophy and the like. Certainly, such disciplines cannot be addressed adequately without providing the student with a wide exposure to the “masters” who have gone before us. Today, however, the university is home to those studying nursing, business management, accounting, marketing, computer programming, journalism (my major), and television and radio broadcasting. These latter disciplines, more akin to the “trade” disciplines of earlier times, have now been co-opted by the university system. Anyone who seeks a career in these fields without the benefit of a four year degree will find his options severely limited.
That such disciplines are now part of the university system is, I believe, a good thing. Well-rounded businessmen, journalists and computer programmers are good for society. But will Shakespeare and Homer best enable these students to obtain a balanced education? In many cases, I think the answer is no. For those who have not chosen a liberal arts field of study, a short story class might make more sense than one on Dante or Milton; courses on the sacraments and Christian marriage could benefit their lives more than a study of the Augustine or Aquinas; and reflections on contemporary ethical questions, such as abortion and the American penal system, could contribute more to their general education than studying about the barbarian invasions of Rome.
I am sure that some will accuse me of educational utilitarianism, 1 but they would be missing the point. What I mean to say is this: a core curriculum dominated by classical philosophy, theology and literature would not serve everyone who is part of the university system. Many academics do not like to hear this, but not all students are drawn to engage the great philosophical and theological questions of western civilization; nor should this preclude them from receiving a balanced, unified education. Believe it or not, one can be a good, well-rounded adult, a faithful Catholic and a valuable member of society without knowing the difference between Thomism and phenomenology. A core that too-rigidly forces all university students into a study of the masters will dissuade many from the Franciscan University experience. Some may think this a valuable “weeding out” process. I would call it tragic.
This leads me to comment upon Dr. Martin’s claim that “we simply cannot pretend that real education is happening here until all our students . . . undertake to experience genuine and sustained encounters with the intellectual and spiritual giants on whose shoulders we all gratefully stand.” The unavoidable inference is that my fellow alumni and I did not experience “real” education at FUS. Dr. Crosby expresses a similar view when he speculates that most alumni remember the University mainly for its intense religious life and possibly for their major course of study; they do not, he thinks, recall the program of general education as a decisive learning experience.
I know many alumni would be insulted by these assertions. For many of us, the general educational program profoundly affected our way of thinking. We did not merely have an intense religious experience, which experience was isolated from the academic life. We learned to integrate our faith with the educational process and began to develop sense for the “unity of knowledge.” As can be expected, some teachers pushed us in this direction more than others. But the overall effect was certain: we left the University with a relevant faith and the courage to bring it to the public square. Although all of us might not have received a “classic” liberal arts education, certainly we learned that our Catholicism must impact all facets of our lives, and that we cannot compartmentalize such matters as vocation, religious belief, academic pursuits, political commitments and cultural endeavors. All are related and all contribute to the constitution of our society.
Lest I be accused of over-stating the value of the present core requirements, a few examples from my own experience should prove helpful: Mary Ann Sunyoger, in her engaging writing course, taught me how form supports content in writing and along the way assigned me a project on Plato’s dialogues; Alan Schreck’s class on marriage helped prepare me for my lifelong vocation and exposed me to the writings of Pope John Paul; Humberto Belli’s course on liberation theology helped me to apply biblical principles to political systems and included the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Robert Englert’s American Novel class introduced me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway; and Don Materniak’s accounting courses taught me academic discipline (he demanded hard work) and imparted knowledge that has been helpful in my legal career. My guess is that many of these courses would not be included in Dr. Crosby’s or Dr. Martin’s idea of a core curriculum. But each one contributed to a well-rounded education. My friends had similar experiences with diversified course selections.
The education we received at FUS also instilled in us the desire to continue learning. We now spend free time reading encyclicals and the new catechism; we form bible studies; we subscribe to various journals of Catholic thought; and when time permits, we read the works of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. These are not activities pursued by the average graduate of, for example, Piedmont Virginia Community College.
I believe, then, that the University should move carefully as it decides the future of its core curriculum. The core should be responsive to students with different career paths, different abilities and different orientations. Possibly different cores should be designed for students with different career orientations and abilities. This is not to say that some courses currently acceptable as core courses should not be removed from such classification and that the faculty should not narrow the list of courses that pass for core courses, in order to pursue the laudable goal of providing the student with a unified body of knowledge. 2 I wholeheartedly encourage this process. The end product, however, ought not be an inflexible core dominated by classical philosophy, literature and theology for each and every student, regardless of his own educational aims.
With this said, I must end by stating that, personally, “if I could do it all again,” I would push my education more toward a “sustained encounter with the intellectual and spiritual giants on whose shoulders we all gratefully stand.” The faculty should structure and encourage such a classical education for those who seek it (this was not done when I attended the University). But after speaking to many others who would not choose such a course of study, and who greatly benefited from their educational experience at the University, I believe such a choice should not be the imposed norm.
Mark Fischer is an alumnus of the class of ‘89 and Contributing Editor of the Concourse.