In reply to Mark Fischer’s defense of the present core curriculum
by John F. Crosby
N.B.: In our maiden issue last February, Dr. Crosby wrote an article arguing that the University ought to establish a unified core curriculum. The subject was taken up by various others throughout last semester. In our Vol. I, issue 7/8 Mark Fischer wrote a piece defending our present requirements.
I was glad to see that Mark Fischer agrees with one of the main core curriculum reforms that I and others have proposed. We have proposed to limit the core to fundamental human knowledge and to eliminate all that is specialized. He says he agrees with this reform, and his agreement is significant: precisely because he has so much to say in behalf of the existing core, it is significant that he favors this reform of it that I have advocated.
Mark Fischer disagrees with a core consisting entirely of “great books”; but in this he does not disagree with me, for I have never proposed such a core.
And yet we are not in complete agreement. He claims that students in the professional programs do not really need any acquaintance with Homer or Shakespeare, or even with St. Augustine or St. Thomas. He goes so far as to say that “the great philosophical and theological questions of western civilization” should be optional for them. Some of the courses that he thinks appropriate for the core of these students are not even liberal arts courses in any sense of the term, courses such as sacraments, or accounting. It seems to me that these ideas of his, once put into practice, would go far towards deconstructing any kind of coherent core; they would undermine even such unity as we have in our existing core.
Notice how Mark Fischer works with caricature in ruling out of the core curriculum “the great philosophical and theological questions.” He implies that the question of the difference between Thomism and phenomenology is one of these questions. This is of course a fine point of philosophy that is hardly a necessary part of anyone’s general education. What he obscures with this rhetorical trick is that among “the great philosophical and theological questions” are the questions of the existence of God, the nature of the soul, the embodiment of the human person, freedom and responsibility. He does a serious injustice to the students in the professional programs when he says in effect that these questions are beyond them, or are of no possible interest to them, and should only be electives for them. He thus condescends to the professional students in a way that reminds me of those who speak as if certain minorities are not capable of living up to the moral code that the rest of us practice. Mark Fischer fails to take our professional students seriously as intellectually awakened human beings. If there is anywhere within the domain of human knowledge a knowledge that can be called fundamental, surely it is the knowledge at which these questions aim. If there is anywhere a knowledge that all educated human beings should have, surely it is just such knowledge. It is incomprehensible to me that anyone should think that a core curriculum in a Catholic liberal arts college can dispense with “the great philosophical and theological questions of western civilization.” I doubt that there is a single member of our faculty who agrees with him on this.
I think that Mr. Fischer also overlooks the importance of some modest knowledge of a few classic works of western civilization. It is hard to see how a person can be considered liberally educated if he or she has never read a dialogue of Plato or the Confessions of St. Augustine or a tragedy of Shakespeare. These are minds of an incomparable stature and profundity; there is simply no educational substitute for encountering them through their own words. Furthermore, we can never get to know the western Christian tradition that we inherit if we avoid all direct contact with the greatest minds of that tradition. Without some reading of their works our students will display that historical obliviousness which is the mark of a half-educated mind. We will certainly do our students—our professional students no less than our humanities students—a favor if we can reorganize the core so that they are sure to study at least a few of the greatest classics of western civilization.
Mark Fischer thinks that it is a sign of a liberally educated student to “spend free time reading encyclicals and the new catechism” and to “form bible studies.” This gives me the opportunity to make a point—I do not say that Mark Fischer disagrees—that seems to me of particular importance in our Steubenville discussions on the curriculum. Some think that receiving a liberal education means being thoroughly catechized in the faith. They think that if they are well formed in some professional major program and well catechized in their theology courses, they have received everything a liberal arts education could possibly be. In reality their liberal arts education may have slipped right between the cracks. There is no guarantee that, knowing the catechism and knowing their major, they will have that “vision of the whole” which, according to Newman, distinguishes such education. The imparting of a liberal arts formation of mind is a task of its own, above and beyond catechesis and professional programs. The true sign of it will be not just reading encyclicals, but knowing how to interpret them with balance and with a sense of proportion that expresses an awareness of the whole of truth.
Mark Fischer says he speaks for “several” others in pleading for our existing core curriculum. I do not think that he speaks for many; all of the students and alumni who have declared a position in the Concourse or in the Troubadour on the core curriculum—with the one exception of Mark Fischer himself—have agreed that the University can do better by its students in the core, that we need to unify the core in various ways. I have also received some letters from students that were not published. The following is taken from a letter written to me last spring by a student who has since graduated with a major in political science.
“A lack of a common core curriculum lies at the crux of the frustration with my own academic life. I am convinced that I would have extracted much more out of my earlier courses if I had an understanding that each course contributes to an overall picture… I do not stand alone in this regard. In my two years as a university Resident Assistant…I have seen that same void in many, many other students.”
Dr. John F. Crosby, Professor and Chair of Franciscan University’s Philosophy Department