Academia: Straight to the Core
Thursday's Child Has Far to Go
I feel some attraction to the curricular ideal of a “core curriculum”, some set of classes that all students at an institution all must take, as at Columbia University. Roosevelt Montas, the director of Columbia’s Core program, offers a lucid defense of the idea in the November 16th Chronicle of Higher Education.
Montas resituates the argument partly away from specific content and towards the proposition that it is a structural commitment that creates connection and commonality among undergraduates. But he can’t entirely dodge the content problem that makes the whole idea so vexed. The program, he says, does have to focus on “core texts”, it does have to be chronological (which means that authors besides white men can only enter into the Core at the end of the sequence, in his view), and it does have to stay focused on how the Western tradition was shaped because that is “the lineage of thought and debate that has most shaped the Western world”.
Cue the sad trombone noise, because that’s where the problem really lies with the idea as Columbia practices it.
I understand that you can’t just get a common shared experience that links all undergraduates by creating a tier or type of elective courses that are small, discussion-oriented, and non-disciplinary (the attributes Montas says the Columbia Core has in its “form”). Many institutions, including Swarthmore, have first-year seminars or some similar designated course type designed to give all students a shared experience on entry, and the fact is that they generally do not serve that purpose unless immense effort is put into scrutinizing all courses with that designation. If you leave it to faculty to teach a first-year course as whatever they see fit, many will teach narrowly disciplinary classes or will turn the course into a more lecture-based approach, and in some cases departments will simply take the designation and refashion it as a standard introductory class that is disguised as something it is not.
To be honest, in many cases, it becomes a method for “enrollment capture” as well—a professor who is having trouble filling courses otherwise gets pushed into designating their courses as some kind of special first-year experience. My daughter had a class like this at her first university before she transferred, where the professor teaching it plainly had no idea that the class was supposed to have some kind of special designated role in the curriculum (the catalog described these courses as interdisciplinary, discussion-based, small and writing-intensive) and carried on as if he were teaching a mid-level specialized course in his discipline. (The writing was handled by a teaching assistant who made almost no comments on papers.)
So if you are serious about a common experience, there has to be common content. Montas is right about that much. If you take faculty from ten different disciplines and you ask all of them to read the same six books with students, you’ll get different perspectives but there will be some strong convergence of experience and discussion as well. To some extent the texts can overcome pedagogical variability.
The problem with Columbia’s approach is “the West”, coupled tightly to “presented chronologically”, as the way to build that core. I’m hardly the first to point out that what Montas (relatively faintly) defends in this essay is a recent fiction, on multiple levels. The global present that institutions like Columbia claim to reside within has other genealogies within it. “The West” is not a simple accumulation of a continuous tradition but in its most recent form a construct that has violently expelled or sidelined much of what went into its making. A chronological presentation does not have to only allow non-white texts into the mix when non-white authors began to have more open access to modern publishing: you can continuously strive to create pluralism all the way back.
The issue, I suspect, is with the centrality of exegesis to the pedagogy of Columbia’s Core—the reading of source texts and the shared work of interpreting them. Meaning, I can list a large number of historical and anthropological studies that show that “the West” at various points in its putative history was constructed in and through dialogues with and readings of “non-Western” ideas, interpretations, practices, commentaries and translated texts, and that at some points, the notion that there was a “West” would have been entirely unfamiliar to figures that many conventionalized modern narratives would appoint to the supposed Western tradition. But the Core’s teachers and designers would doubtless point out that a syllabus full of that scholarship puts the students at a second-order remove from direct interpretation. If they read Richard White’s The Middle Ground as a way to rethink how law, justice, morality, and violence were fashioned through dialogue and convergence between Native American and European visions in a frontier era in the Great Lakes region, they may find White’s interpretation convincing, but they’re not going to be looking directly at what he’s looking at to come to those conclusions.
The thing is, though, that anybody who wants to teach something like the Core for the reasons that Montas lays out is being uncreative if they just settle for some Greeks, some Romans, and some medieval and early modern Europeans. They’d be just as uncreative if they expelled or removed all such texts, mind you. You could still teach chronologically and yet build a core that has South Asian, East Asian, African, pre-Columbian, etc. texts in it, that has work by women as well as men. You could do that both with “classic” works of philosophy, theology, commentary and with “ordinary” works by everyday people (letters, documents, etc.).
The typical objection to tossing texts like the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects, the Muqadimmah, or the Popol Vuh into something Columbia’s Core is that the faculty teaching in such a program lack the background knowledge to teach such texts properly. You could add to that texts that are “Western” but not commonly read within your average modern presentation of “Western tradition”: Egil’s Saga, the Kalevala, Against Celsus, and a great deal else.
That is a solveable problem. You recruit people who do know, and more importantly you build the knowledge necessary to do so in other faculty. That’s actually what people in the “Western tradition” have done, in fact: acquire new knowledge about texts they think they know, abandon received wisdom about them, demote some texts seen as canonical, promote others, pull works into connection that have never been referenced before. Learn by doing.
Look at some of the texts in use now at Columbia. I promise you that some of the people who’ve taught those over the years there are not specialists in medieval Europe or classical Greece, and who offer contemporaneous readings of the texts and their meanings that are in fact significantly at odds with what those texts meant in their context and times, and are completely ignorant of what the authors of those texts were themselves reading and thinking and reacting to. We’re ok with that because we have, or think we have, traditions of interpretation within our own contexts that are continuously accumulative since the texts were written (often not true). So you can teach Machiavelli because you can teach Hobbes because you can teach Arendt because you can teach Gramsci because you can teach Strauss even if you don’t know the first thing about Baldassare Constiglione, the Medici attack on Florence, Xenophon or La Mandragola.
We can give ourselves permission to make new relations to old texts. And to use texts that are not so commonly used. I recently wrote about Jonathan Ree’s book Witcraft, which demonstrates what a textually-crowded and rich space early modern philosophy in English really was, and how narrow and unimaginative our perceptions of a philosophical ‘tradition’ in the present actually are. It is possible to multiply and complicate a common core of readings all the way back and to “skill up” a broadly educated liberal-arts faculty to work competently with the resulting shared experience.
So yes, it would be good to have all students of an institution sharing a common experience and being part of a shared conversation. But most of the existing (or surviving) curricula that do so are woefully underimagined and attached to a mythology of “the West” that’s not necessary nor particularly accurate. That’s not being “woke” or arguing for inclusion just for inclusion’s sake—even for someone who believes in a “Western tradition”, it’s better to believe in its actual complexity, uneven development, and surprising pluralism and to teach towards that.