The Core, and the Core, and the Core

This is the text of a talk I gave last year at the faculty retreat.  It seems like ancient history now! (The title is a pun on General MacArthur’s final remarks at Westpoint in 1962)

“The Core, and The Core, and The Core,” or
Remarks on the Learning Objectives
of the Proposed New General Education Curriculum

University of the South Faculty Retreat
Dubose Conference Center
Monteagle, Tennessee
August 24, 2012

Good morning.  In the next fifteen minutes or so, I want to go over the first part of our committee’s proposal to you about the new general education curriculum, in particular the learning objectives that are numbered 1 through 6 on the sheets I hope you all have there, and to give a few examples of how we see currently-offered courses fitting into those objectives.

Before I get to that, however, let me say just a little about how we have arrived to the proposal that we have before you. Many of you will remember the Convocation in the fall of 2010, when the Vice-Chancellor gave us the charge to revise the core curriculum. As a committee, we were encouraged to think broadly about general education, not to tweak here and there, but rather to start from scratch. The appearance shortly thereafter of Brown Patterson’s book, The Liberal Arts at Sewanee: A History of Teaching and Learning at the University of the South was fortuitous for us. Brown’s meticulous account details how the curriculum has always, every twenty years or so, been re-thought and re-deployed.  The Sewanee faculty have, since the college’s inception, approached matters of curriculum in a dynamic spirit, giving students what they have needed for the world they were entering.

So, our committee got to work, and the first thing we did, quite rightly, was to ask you, the faculty, what principles ought to guide us in thinking about building a gen ed curriculum from the ground up.  We met with you in small groups in Gailor Hall in the spring of 2011, benefited from further conversations with you over lunches in McClurg in the fall of 2011, brought a number of possible models to you for discussion in Convocation Hall in the spring of 2012, and now, as the fall of 2012 is about to begin, have brought you our proposal.

You were participants in the discussions, and so will not be surprised to discover that there are no sweeping proposals for reform here, no call for a raft of new classes or programs, no demands for re-structuring of academic units.  The Sewanee general education curriculum is a strong one and our proposal builds on those strengths, while also introducing those elements we kept hearing from you would be desirable, in particular, a better articulation of the core curriculum’s coherence, and an increased flexibility in gen ed offerings as a whole.

So what was the right way to do that?  Please believe me, when I say that we had many difficult and frustrating meetings over the last two years, and it is a testament to Bran Potter’s perseverance and boundless patience that we have all come through in one piece.  The question before us was a simple one—“what does the generally well-educated person need to know in the twenty-first century?”—but not simple one to answer.  In the end, we gave real thought to what is distinctive about an education dedicated to the liberal arts, as opposed to what a student might receive at a research or technical institution.  In thinking through that fundamental difference, we were led to think about the differences between general education and the more focused, major field of study.  We concluded that, while our majors are mostly housed in individual departments, that wasn’t true of general education, which instead belongs to the college overall.  Our proposal reflects that idea, and as a consequence, faculty will find in our proposal that the courses they offer for general education might sensibly fit in to a number of different objectives.  In doing this, we are acknowledging another fact, that disciplines are more permeable than they were when the core curriculum was last framed.

With that as prologue, then, let me turn to the learning objectives outlined in Section I  (leaving the competencies in Roman numeral II for Scott Wilson to discuss presently).  Again, we were guided by our sense that we could not imagine a person with a Sewanee education not having some acquaintance with these areas.  To begin with, the generally  well-educated person should be capable of thes things:

  • Reading Closely: Interpreting the Literary Arts
  • Making Something New: Invention, Analysis, and the Creative Process
  • Seeking Answers and Living the Questions: Morality, Ethics, and Citizenship
  • Developing Perspectives: Societies and Cultures, Past and Present
  • Observing and Experimenting: Quantitative and Scientific Thinking
  • Comprehending Cross-Culturally: Language and Global Studies

Now, as I said, there are a number of core courses that we currently offer that could reasonably be thought to fulfill more than one of these objectives, and because of this, we envision many courses having two designations (or “double-dipping,” as we have been calling it in the committee).  In this, the nature of much of general education, its broadness and inherent interconnectedness, is something we are simply recognizing.

Let me note in passing that, as we want to encourage breadth, “triple-dipping” will not be recommended.

Okay, so we have these designations, you say.  Can you put some flesh on these bones?  Let me offer a few examples.

1.  Reading Closely: Interpreting the Literary Arts.  In this category, we of course will find English 101, as well as any other courses the English department chooses to designate. A literature course taught in English offered by another department would also make sense here, as for instance, an already well-established course like German fairytales or a course on Dostoevsky taught by the Russian department.

2.  Under the rubric of Making Something New: Invention, Analysis, and the Creative Process, certainly classes offered in the visual and performing arts ought to be counted, as well as courses in the study of art or music history as in the old Fine Arts category. But in  addition, we envision courses in Creative Writing or Computer Modeling also fulfilling this objective, and other places where creativity and imagination are at the heart of the course.  Many of the courses here will pair readily with other learning objectives, we imagine.  Documentary film-making in Haiti, for instance, would certainly seems to create a bridge between this category and “developing perspectives.”

3.  Seeking Answers and Living the Questions: Morality, Ethics, and Citizenship.  I have no doubt that there will be many Philosophy or Religion courses currently offered that will fall under this rubric, but I have to imagine that some classes in Environmental Studies or Anthropology will also fit here, or a course that I might want to develop about Socrates.  As citizenship is component of this objective, many courses from Poli Sci are appropriate here, naturally.

4.  Developing Perspectives: Societies and Cultures, Past and Present.  There are a vast array of course in History and the Social Sciences that seem at home in this objective, as might some courses offered now by, say, Religion or Art History.  The broad purpose of this category is to introduce students to the study of societies and cultures, although the interaction of individuals within societies or cultures seems to offer room for the the possibility of double-dipping with Seeking Answers or Making Something New.

5. Observing and Experimenting: Quantitative and Scientific Thinking.  In this proposal, Quantitative will not be synonymous with something offered by Math, but could also encompass Statistics, some courses in Political Science as well as Economics.  In the Sciences, we envision a continuing of the shift toward experiential learning; and we were heartened to hear some of our colleagues considering the idea of developing an interdepartmental sequence akin in structure to that of the Humanities program.

6. Comprehending Cross-Culturally: Language and Global Studies.  Sewanee has always held language study and cross-cultural comprehension in high regard, and as you might expect, this area is already rich with possibility. It is easy to see, too, how courses now offered in foreign language departments might be paired with some of the other learning objectives, particularly Close Reading.  But for students who choose to forego the 300-level language course, some offerings already offered in History or IGS, for instance, can help students fulfill this objective.

Now this final example brings us to a point that we will admit not to having a full-formed answer for.  In short, who makes the call about which learning objective or objectives a course satisfies?  Who is the decider?  That is probably something we need to figure out together.  One the one hand, we could expand the Curriculum and Academic Policy’s charge, or have a group of six sub-committees for each objective.  That would be one way.  Another idea is to simply let the professors of record determine this for themselves for their own courses.  Or perhaps the professors make this determination in consultation with their departments, thus allowing the departments to keep some hand in the process.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these methods, and, as I say, we can work together to figure it out.

I think it’s easy to see, in what I have just outlined, how the matter of flexibility is achieved here.  In addition, our proposal also allows students who have achieved a 5 on the Advanced Placement Exam or done IB coursework to exempt out of some of these categories, thus giving students credit for their successful work in high school.  But to focus on the work of our own faculty: if a German or Classics professor can be contributing in Close Reading objective, or a Computer Scientist is helping students to make something new, you can see how choices open up for students in a way that our present curriculum does not allow.

We sometimes hear about “the empowering nature of choice,” and while it is a truism,  there is still a certain amount of truth to it.  Given greater choice, one of the things we imagine to be lost will be that uncooperative frame of mind that students occasionally exhibit in core classes. As one who has dragged students through four semesters of Latin, I will not miss that.  The phrase “I’m doing this because I have to” is, by its nature, antithetical to the spirit of a liberal arts education, through which we hope to be training people to make their own choices.

Let me conclude by addressing briefly one last point, the one I am most happy with.  In our conversations with faculty, we heard time and again that you wanted to see some more deliberate sense of coherence in our core.  That’s a tall order, but it becomes less so when you think about how that idea of coherence has ever really been achieved.  It comes about in conversation, of course.  Sewanee can rightly pride itself on its close student-faculty relationships, and it makes all the sense in the world that our core curriculum needs to cease being a checklist to be gotten through and to start being a springboard for genuine dialogue about intellectual formation, so that as advisors, we can move away from being “registration buddies” (to use a phrase I recently heard from a colleague) to instead become faculty mentors as early as the August of the freshman year, when we first meet our advisees, as many of us will do tomorrow afternoon.  Speaking for myself, I think that instead of talking to students about which History 100 section best fits their schedules, there will be far more productive conversations to arise from asking them things like, What perspectives would you like to develop?  What answers are you seeking?  Is there something new you would like to make?  And how do you see it all fitting together?

And on that note of making new things and seeing how it all fits together, let me bring my remarks to an end.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Education, Military, Sewanee. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Core, and the Core, and the Core

  1. William McKeachie says:

    St. Augustine of Hippo famously observed that many holy people are ignorant of the liberal arts whilst many others are liberally educated, at least in a formal way, yet fall woefully short of holiness! What would he think of Sewanee’s core curriculum? Is it even still a core, in any intellectually integrated sense? The intent of Sewanee’s Founders was to bridge the divide that St. Augustine had rued 1500 years earlier, a divide that was in time addressed head on by the mediaeval schools but that subsequently became ever more acute with the rise of rationalism and, incipiently, profane historicism. After the War, they found their ideal embodied in that saintly sage William Porcher DuBose. The unusual opportunity even now afforded a scholarly community such as Sewanee, still committed as it is (at least in principle) to a view of academic disciplines that “sees them whole” — as integrated rather than autonomous — is that of defining its curricular core in terms of an implicitly sacred rather than merely secular understanding of the liberal arts and sciences. My own other undergraduate “alma mater” (St. John’s, Annapolis), though institutionally secularised, is more substantively intentional than Sewanee about requiring explicit engagement, by faculty and students alike, with the claims of “thinking Christianly” (Harry Blamires’s coinage) as over against unreflective acceptance of the presumptions of modernity and, now, post-modernity. But perhaps the most formatively imaginative and intellectually provocative liberal arts curriculum in North America is the Foundation Year Programme at King’s, Halifax, overseen by many of the same faculty there who, by cross-appointment at Dalhousie University, have brought Religious Studies to heel under the aegis of the Classics Department! Now that’s a core of cores! Maybe, between the professorial author of this blog and the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of The University of the South, St. Augustine’s vision has a chance to “rise again” on the (Holy?) Mountain.

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