Colgate’s Core Program: A Professor’s Perspective

Matthew Schertz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Education

While Carl Wivagg’s criticism of the Core curriculum did bring up some important issues regarding the program, the argument that the Core is “too superficial a study, lacking context, lacking structure and lacking substance” is overreaching. Although I can in no way speak for my colleagues regarding their own views on the core curriculum, having myself taught Challenge of Modernity a few times now and having graduated from St. John’s College where I literally breathed the “Great Books” for four years, I am in a unique position to respond to the argument presented.

The first claim made, that the randomness of the classes is a detriment to understanding the conversation that takes place throughout the history of the western canon, does have merit. I would advise to anyone to take Western Traditions prior to Challenge of Modernity. However, students at this institution are encouraged to pursue their individual interests. Many members of my first-year seminar wanted to take Challenge of Modernity or a specific Core Cultures class first because they found them compelling. Moreover, while Challenge of Modernity is in many ways a reaction to the foundations of the western intellectual tradition, it is simply unfeasible to expect that the breadth of the canon be made manifest in two synchronized classes. Rabelais, Montaigne, Augustine, Pascal, Austen, Geothe, Sappho and Lucretius all deserve our attention, but reading them systematically and thoroughly would require that we completely morph this institution into a college which presents a survey of the western cultural tradition outside the realm of a specific major. With regard to the current situation, logistically speaking, it would be impossible to staff the Core program so that you have 32 professors teaching CORE 151 in the fall and 32 more teaching CORE 152 in the spring of freshman year.

The faculty at Colgate are specialists who have teaching commitments in their own departments. The courses in these departments fluctuate from semester to semester. While there are many dedicated interdisciplinary faculty members at this university who, like myself, love teaching a wide range of courses, and contribute a substantial amount of their time to the Core; in the spring one of us might be needed to teach Introduction to Anthropology or run a study group abroad.

The claim that there is a lack of context also deserves special attention. On the one hand, it is difficult to present a historical background for all the texts that are read in the Core because each book is an entire study in and of itself. It is simply impossible to explore all the permutations that make up the construction and reception of multiple paradigm shifting works in one course, let alone two courses. Moreover, the perrenialist position, which this whole Core business was originally based upon, does not advocate that one understand the historical context of a particular work. The writers of these books are participating in what Hutchin’s called “The Great Conversation.” Marcus Aurelius echoes the sentiments of his great teacher Epictetus. Virgil creates a foundation myth for Rome which mirror’s Homer’s Odyssey. Each of the authors is responding to those that came before as a participant in this timeless dialogue.

The term perrenialist is deliberate. The beauty and sheer power of these works, like a sturdy Upstate shrubbery, always returns. They stand the test of time. The Core seeks to engage the reader with the text for what it is, commentary and context aside, because if the book itself doesn’t speak to the student, then he is missing the point entirely. The books are the teacher. By engaging in a group discussion of these works, students themselves are allowed to participate in this great conversation. It is a liberating and at the same time challenging experience because it calls upon young scholars to simultaneously commune with the texts and their fellow classmates.

With regard to promoting critical thinking, the professor models constructive criticism and fulfills the role of gadfly. Otherwise, inquiry-based dialogue won’t work. I agree that sometimes class discussions can be frustrating. It literally takes time for a class to gel. Confidence must be bolstered and arguments need to be clearly articulated. Everyone, including the professor, stumbles on occasion. Sometimes a comment is passed by in silence because there is nothing anyone can say to constructively respond. The professor and fellow students are then called upon to judge which turn the conversation takes. Regardless of these difficulties, I have never encountered a substantial problem facilitating discussions at Colgate University. The students here are gifted and most are more than willing to engage the text in a serious manner.

I hope that what I stated previously calls into question the notion that the Core program lacks substance. I find this assertion the most disturbing of all. By claiming that “the courses ultimately fail to provoke introspection or insight to the sorts of broad questions that characterize our mission statement or course descriptions,” Wivagg is implying that both the professors and the Core itself are failing in their educational mission, which I challenge wholeheartedly. The substance of the Core lies within the readings themselves and the dialogue that is generated within the classroom. It is my job as a professor to help uncover the intricacies of the text for the students, and to focus the dialogue so that it brings the class to a level of understanding which surpasses that of any one individual reader.

Ultimately, Wivagg’s article, which echoes Allan Bloom’s charge, demonstrates a frustration with the gradual fade of the liberal arts tradition across the breadth of academia. While I sympathize with certain aspects of Bloom’s position, Colgate’s vision of education expands well beyond the canon, as it should. I was never given the chance to read Arundhati Roy in Core India or study psychology as an undergraduate. Colgate’s strength lies in the sheer breadth and depth of its strong departments. If one particular genre or author from the western canon peaks a student’s interest, then she should pursue it further in a department. Students at Colgate can study Thomas Aquinas, John Dewey, Simone de Beauvoir and Adam Smith. A wide-reaching liberal-arts experience is entirely possible because the various departments at Colgate honor their respective theoretical foundations.

However, the liberal arts can get lost in the clamor of departmental requirements and double majors. Unfortunately, students’ busy, task-driven lives can make every aspect of their educational experience seem like another hurdle instead of the potential for enlightenment. Perhaps both faculty and students need to step back and remind themselves that studying the liberal arts is ultimately a luxurious and enriching experience that should be pursued for its own sake. Maybe the university could stress this further by expanding the course offerings in the Core so that more of the authors listed previously are heard. As for myself, the only way I can honor the liberal arts tradition is by engaging in great conversation with the students in my charge.