An argument that has gone on for decades concerns the issues of core curricula on the undergraduate level. This ties into notions of cultural literacy and canonicity, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. It will come as no surprise that I support the model of a tightly defined core curriculum with students , as opposed to the looser, distributionist approach found at the majority of colleges and universities, where students select from a wide range of courses under such broad headings as “Humanities” or “Science” in a one-from-Column A, two-from-Column-B approach.
But as I said, the debate continues, and there’s a very solid article on it at The New Criterion. James Piereson looks at the Ivies that embody each model — Columbia (with a tight core that is sometimes described as a “Great Books” curriculum, much to their chagrin) and Harvard (with a cafeteria-style distributionist core).
One of my favorite sections of Piereson’s article concerns the director of Columbia’s program:
In some respects, [Roosevelt] Montás is an unusual figure to be heading up a program in the great books. Born in the Dominican Republic and emigrating to the United States only as a teenager, Montás entered Columbia as an undergraduate in 1991, ill-prepared for the intellectual challenges posed by the core curriculum. By conventional campus logic, he was precisely the kind of student who should have rebelled against a course of study filled with the works of dead white Europeans. Yet he soon found that, instead of stifling his curiosity, Columbia’s academic requirements gave him a sense of intellectual order that laid a foundation for further study and discovery. With that foundation, Montás proceeded to earn his B.A. from Columbia and, later, a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature. Now, as the director of the Core, he serves as a thoughtful ambassador for a structured curriculum in the classics.
Montás is thus in a strong position to reply to critics on the campus and elsewhere who assert that the Core reflects the thought of a single culture and is too narrow for students preparing to enter a global economy. The Western tradition at the heart of the curriculum, he points out, is neither monolithic nor homogenous but rather one of debate, dissent, and surprisingly frequent upheavals in inherited doctrines and assumptions. The great books that students encounter in the Core encapsulate fundamental arguments over religion, morality, war, economics, and political organization that have shaped the history of the West and, indeed, of the entire world. Even the multicultural critique of the great books is built—albeit unreflectively—upon the theories of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, whose writings appear on the syllabus. There is no single line of thought inherent to the Core that bolsters the interests or outlook of any particular group. Far from being conservative, the works taken as a whole challenge and undermine contemporary habits of thought.
I think one of the reasons I favor the more focused core is that I know what the traditional canon has done for me. In many ways, I’m basically an autodidact. Although all my degrees are in English, I earned my undergraduate major by testing out of it (All told, I tested out of about 2 years worth of undergrad credit, including my major.) I was able to do it because I read the works that make up much of the traditional canon, both from the Harvard Classics series and the various Norton anthologies my dad and I would pick up at garage sales and used book stores. this had its shortcomings — I had never written a college-level term paper before grad school, so I had to learn to be a scholar (and even on the M.A. level I typically took creative writing courses rather than traditional literature courses, though I still read the works on my own), but there’s some pride in it for me as well. One of my Ph.D. professors described me like this: “Mr. Mondo does not have the scholarly practice that many of his peers have — but he’s read an awful lot of books.” And those books have shown me the way to what I hope is a literate, thoughtful life. I want my students to have that life as well.
But students, like water, will generally follow the easiest path, opting for the easier, sexier-sounding, or better marketed courses over the substantial if given the opportunity. There are lots of colleges that allow them the opportunity to do exactly that — including Mondoville, alas.
Fortunately, schools like Columbia and St. John’s (MD) offer an alternative. Good for them, and good for Piereson for looking at them.