Core: A Death in the Curriculum, page 2

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Author: Ed Cohen

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Phillip R. Sloan is chair of the Program of Liberal Studies, a traditional great-books program that has been offered as a major at Notre Dame for more than half a century. He also chaired a 1996-97 committee of the Arts and Letters College Council that studied possible revisions to the Core course. He says attitudes like Norton’s fail to recognize the distinction between informed scrutiny of texts, a worthy pursuit, and the broader aims of a general liberal education.

“I think there is no question that people with Ph.D.s should be able to read books better than sophomores, even if they are not professional experts on these books.”

But no one should claim to be an expert on the eternal questions Core addresses like life, death, faith and human existence either, he says. Classic texts are considered classics because they raise enduring questions.

Sloan thinks faculty and students should come to such texts in the attitude of fellow learners. Indeed, some veteran faculty who taught Core say they found it refreshing to step outside of their specialty and journey along with students in this way, even if it meant a lot of hard work in preparation.

“What does it mean to have a Ph.D. in a field if you cannot take something slightly outside that field and discuss it in a general way at a fairly high level?” asks another veteran faculty member sorry to see Core go, Alain Toumayan, associate professor of romance languages and literatures. “What I’ve often heard . . . from faculty is, ’I’m not the best person to teach Shakespeare to our undergraduates,’ being an economist or a sociologist, for example. I’ve not really been comfortable with that. Core is supposed to be giving our students the language and concepts that are common to all our disciplines. . . . We should be willing to take the extra time to teach them at that level and be competent.”

Sloan, who is president of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, a national organization that includes more than 100 institutions large and small, also says that by ceasing to require a Core-type course, Notre Dame is now “probably the only Catholic college or university that doesn’t have a commitment to some reading of a core set of texts by its graduates.” He notes that the Baptist institution Baylor University in Texas, often cited as a religiously based university with research aspirations similar to Notre Dame, has recently instituted an entire curriculum built around required readings of classic texts. And Core-style programs remain the pride of many elite schools like the University of Chicago and Columbia University. At Columbia, he says, teaching Core is considered an honor.

Sloan says a survey his committee conducted in 1996-97 found a direct link between the decline in the quality of Notre Dame’s Core course and the college being forced to rely more on part-time faculty after the switch to the 2-2 teaching load. But he also thinks the program lost focus when it dropped classic works that were part of the original reading list in 1979.

The PLS chair says faculty need to be more attentive to what he terms the “cultural deprivation” of students, even highly qualified ones like Notre Dame attracts. For example, he recently asked 24 senior PLS majors—who tend to be more bookish than typical students—how many had ever read anything by Charles Dickens. Only three had, and it was all the same work: A Christmas Carol.

Sloan says Core may be the only place where students will be asked to reflect, in small-group discussion, on the great questions foundational literature can inspire. That’s one reason he recommended returning Core to a great-books orientation along the lines of the original Collegiate Seminar.

The College Council, which consists of the dean, assistant deans and department chairs, an equal number of elected faculty and two students, opted for the new-style, more-specialized College Seminars instead.

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Veteran Core instructors say they still hear from grateful alumni. Some former students call or e-mail looking for reading suggestions. They’re curious about what’s on this year’s reading list. Alumni have also been known to relate stories about applying what they learned in Core to life. Nothing makes Core advocates on the faculty smile more broadly, and ample evidence exists that Core was continuing to turn out satisfied customers.

“It was the best class I took at Notre Dame,” says senior Lindsay Zika, a political science major who took Core with Ruthann Johansen.

She says she enjoyed how Core brought together students with different ideas that she wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. She also says a bond was forged in her Core class and that she still talks with everyone from the class, including Johansen.

“The year-long duration . . . and the fact that it put so many different ideas and issues on the table allowed us to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing and comparing ideas, so that I feel I learned as much from my fellow classmates as I did from the reading.”

That’s exactly how a good seminar is supposed to work. But even Core’s supporters acknowledge that Core 2004 wasn’t Core circa 1980. Because of the difficulty in finding willing instructors, some sections featured one professor in the fall, another in the spring. And predictably, some of the “conscripts,” faculty ordered to teach Core under the departmental tax, proved to be uninspiring seminar leaders, says George Howard, psychology professor and director of the Core program. Also, with the development, starting in 1997, of experimental alternatives like those taught by Arons, Core had ceased being a “common experience” for A&L majors.

Richard A. Jensen, chair of the Department of Economics and Econometrics, says Core also failed to live up to its billing as a course that incorporated all aspects of the liberal arts “in a meaningful way.” Students were often required to attend a play or watch a movie, he says, but there might not be a single mention of sculpture all year.

Most troubling was evidence of growing dissatisfaction among students. A poll posted at the student-run website NDToday.com in February asked A&L majors what they thought of the demise of Core. Of 85 votes cast, 58 percent said they were glad to see it go; 16 percent were saddened; 28 percent were neutral;.

Several years ago when rumors began circulating that Core was on the way out, several students wrote to The Observer to object. This time around the student paper editorialized in favor of change, writing in December: “Core classes have earned a negative reputation among most students and many sophomores enter the class expecting to have a bad experience.”

“I absolutely didn’t like it,” declares junior Katie Solan, an English and Spanish double major. She says she thought it was “a waste of six hours of credit that I could have spent taking a really interesting history course or taking a class that would help me find a second major.”

This is a common complaint among recent generations of Arts and Letters students, who tend to be more focused on building what they consider to be useful blocks of courses, those leading to a second or third major or which relate to future careers goals or grad school. More than 40 percent of A&L students now graduate with at least two majors. Of 114 students who responded to an Observer poll last December asking about alternatives to traditional Core, the largest group (37 percent) said they preferred to eliminate Core altogether.

Solan also says she was confused by Core’s intent. She thought the course was supposed to provide her an opportunity to be part of a small class featuring abundant reading, writing and discussion. It did, but so did almost all of her subsequent A&L courses, she says.

“I never saw how Core was giving us something that wasn’t inherently in our curriculum. Also, the incredible pain of it being an entire year. It’s one thing to make us take Core, but then to have it take up blocks in two semesters of your sophomore year . . . that was just incredibly annoying.”

Sloan counters that such complaints were rare in the early years of Core, when the course was being taught by the college’s top faculty or, earlier, during the great books years. Roche points out that those who look to Columbia or Chicago as a model may not realize that those schools’ core courses also satisfy requirements in literature and other fields. Notre Dame required students to take those courses on top of their two semesters of Core.

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John T. McGreevy ‘86 may have the broadest perspective on Core. He took Core as a Notre Dame student in 1984, during the program’s supposed heyday, he’s taught the course, and now he chairs an Arts and Letters department, history.

“Those who defended the Core course defended something good,” he says. “It was something that had a very good run. It was not a failure, but I think that run was over.”

McGreevy calls the decision to switch to the new-style seminars a good one given the problems attracting faculty to teach Core. He expects more faculty will volunteer for the College Seminars, and he sees students benefitting from being able to start on courses in their major earlier.

He also insists that Core’s demise isn’t the fault of an increased emphasis on research or more specialized faculty. “It’s not like the faculty care less about undergraduates than they did 30 years ago. They just have different sets of interests.”

Roche, likewise, prefers to look ahead. He says he’s excited about the potential for variety in the College Seminars. He’s already picking the brains of colleagues for texts to incorporate into his own planned course, on faith, doubt and reason. As for the loss of the supposed common experience Core gave to Arts and Letters graduates, he says, “I’m willing to give it up to have faculty excited about teaching the seminars and to give students choices.”

Also optimistic, Howard, director of the former Core, says that if the faculty and administrators design the new seminars well, students may elect to use their former second semester of Core to sample a second College Seminar.

Finally, those saddened by Core’s passing may be heartened to know that it isn’t entirely dead. About a half-dozen veteran Core instructors are expected to continue offering what might be called Classic Core next fall. Some will choose to teach the half of the former course they liked best, Howard says. But at least a few are expected to offer consecutive semesters of Core along its former lines.


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