This week’s Pope Center Clarion Call is by Ed Jones of Belmont Abbey College and it’s about his school’s new (but really old) core curriculum. It stresses the importance of fundamental learning for all students and compared with most other core or general education requirements I’ve seen at other schools, Belmont Abbey’s is hard to beat. But in addition, the faculty at the school work closely with their students; that often isn't the case at bigger, more “prestigious” colleges and universities. With its strong religious orientation, obviously Belmont Abbey is not ideal for everyone, but I think that it shows what other small, private colleges will need to do if they’re going to survive–ensure that students receive an education, not just a credential.
My former student Joshua, now ambivalently quartered at UC Santa Cruz (home of the fightin’ Banana Slugs and currently under Federal investigation for systemic anti-Semitism), has an article in Literary Matters about cheating. Not students cheating; students who feel cheated. He's found a couple of excellent literature classes (Cervantes) but most just use books as a vector for stone-cold political ideology. When he was at Monterey Peninsula College, Josh was the midwife who helped deliver a great books program to a college that had been out to axe all its literature courses. In my Intro. to Lit., class he heard me refer to Robert Hutchins’s metaphor for Western literature as a “Great Conversation,” and in Literary Matters he writes
“Within weeks other members of the class and I were meeting on our own time to discuss the Great Books. We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before [my emphasis].”
Josh devoured a copy of Hutchins’s The Great Conversation that he found (where else?) in the college library discard pile. He says, ". . . the students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.” An Iraq War veteran, Josh notes that he was
inspired by The Iliad. I read the Robert Fagles translation and understood, finally, that this poem was not only about the Trojan War, but also about humanity and warfare. It might have been any war. It might be every war.”
In a similar vein, my current student Lisa says that "Before last semester I had never even read a book entirely. I realized how much I really enjoy it. Reading has opened up a whole new world for me. I am glad I finally got introduced into this world . . . .” That they both say “finally” speaks volumes about K-16 education today. Thankfully, The Great Conversation lives on, and it's encouraging that more and more students, such as Josh and Lisa, are growing tired of being excluded from the dialogue.
In the past few weeks, terms like "rigor," "core curriculum" and "traditional humanities courses" have acquired new respectibility following publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift, a book which bluntly describes the dismal state of Amercan undergraduate education. There's been a great deal of dismay and hand-wringing in higher education outlets, but surprisingly few outright denials insisting that everything's really OK.