The current “core curriculum” in state universities in Texas is, despite the state legislature’s best efforts, a dismal failure, as I’ve argued in my last two posts. To put it simply, the core curriculum contains neither a core nor a curriculum. It is merely an empty set of categories into which the modern university has poured the poisonous brew of political correctness and identity politics.
We need either to abandon the core requirements altogether or find a way to circumvent both college administrators and the faculty. Fortunately, modern technology enables us to do just that–to bring back to higher education Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been written and thought: the history of the human spirit.” That technology is the MOOC, the massively online open course.
MOOCs could provide a series of courses on the classics of Western civilization and the American tradition, as well as the fundamentals of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. All students in the public universities in a state could be required to read a fixed list of great books, to watch a series of lectures by world-class scholars on those books, and to participate in a set of Socratic seminars (either in real space or in a virtual seminar), guided by instructors who have been qualified both in the Socratic method (guiding the students through questions to discover the text’s meaning on their own) and in the relevant disciplines.
The new system would have many advantages over the current system:
1. It would direct students to read and reflect on true classics, not the derivative textbooks or fashionable pan-flashes of the day.
2. It would provide all students with a common vocabulary of concepts, stories, theories and arguments that can enrich their daily conversations and interactions.
3. It would replace mediocre lecturers standing in front of classrooms of hundreds of students with superb lecturers available to millions.
4. The lectures could be available without charge to the general public, elevating the whole culture, and providing a check on irresponsible or politically tendentious abuses of the system.
5. It would save students and their families thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, since the seminar leaders would be paid simply for teaching, with little overhead for administration, student services, and research.
6. It would enable students to complete their degrees on time, without the complications of navigating course schedules for the core component.
Here is the core that I would recommend: six courses in the great books of the Western tradition, two courses in the physical sciences, and one course each in mathematics, composition, symbolic logic, microeconomics, the American Constitution, and American history (before 1914). The Great Books courses should cover something like the following forty books, all of which address the questions of moral and spiritual formation:
1. Homer, Odyssey
2. Plato, Gorgias
3. Plato, Phaedo
4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
5. Aristotle, Politics
6. Sophocles, Antigone
7. Old Testament (selections, including Genesis)
8. New Testament (selections, including Gospel of John, Luke & Acts, Romans)
9. Virgil, Aeneid
10. Cicero, The Laws
11. Cicero, On Obligations
12. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
13. Augustine, The Confessions
14. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
15. The Talmud: A Selection (ed. N. Solomon)
16. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?
17. Thomas Aquinas, selections from the Summa Theologica (especially the treatise on happiness, virtues and the law from Part II-I, articles 1-20, 55-60, 90-97)
18. Dante, Purgatorio
19. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
20. Luther/Erasmus debate (The Bondage of the Will and the Freedom of the Will)
21. Machiavelli, The Prince
22. Shakespeare, Macbeth
23. Shakespeare, The Tempest
24. Shakespeare, Richard III
25. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, book 1
26. Poems by John Donne
27. Cervantes, Don Quixote
28. Pascal, Pensees
29. Teresa of Avila, Autobiography
30. John Milton, Aeropagitica
31. Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue
32. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (selections)
33. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
34. Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (including the Mayflower Compact, The Declaration and The Constitution), ed. Willmoore Kendall
35. Jay, Madison and Hamilton, The Federalist Papers (9, 10, 14-23, 39-51, 70, 78, 84, 85)
36. Brutus, The Federal Farmer, and Patrick Henry, from The Anti-Federalists, edited by Herbert Storing
37. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
38. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (selections)
39. Poems by Emily Dickinson
40. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
Having just forty books over six courses will enable students to spend some time getting to know each work in some depth. These classics stimulate intellectual development by exposing students to a living tradition that is continuously developing and reacting to itself, forging links across disciplines, genres, cultures and times, in a way that no other body of texts can do.