A few weeks ago, in a blog perhaps uninspiringly entitled, “The Difficult Road,” I wrote about how valuable my college education has proved to be, how life-changing a course in anthropology was, how moving a course in history was, how challenging a course in Latin or Greek turned out to be. Hearing, if only imperfectly, the voice of Homer, considering the ways that party politics have stayed constant from antiquity to today, reflecting on the crisis of urban poverty and crime—these are just a few of the core issues that I was privileged to consider at Dickinson College, where I studied so many years ago.
Coincidentally I have a friend who teaches in a college here in Texas which is undergoing deep reflection on what constitutes a liberal education. They are looking at their own core issues. I say core issues because my friend’s institution is, in fact, reexamining what some call distribution requirements but others, more metaphorically, call the core, for those studies do in fact form the very core of what constitutes a liberal arts degree. At his institution there are a number of folks who want to trim that core significantly, chiefly for practical reasons. Some want to see the mathematics requirement eliminated (me genoito, St. Paul once wrote—“God forbid!”), as some students don’t like it; others, the science requirement curtailed, still others, literature and art removed from the core (nefas! [Latin for “an abomination”]) —after all, they say, literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—and finally, the study of non-English language done away with (double nefas!). Everyone speaks English nowadays, they argue. Besides, they add, students can simply elect to take those things on their own. And, they add pragmatically, the parents are wont to complain when their children find this or that course distasteful, uninteresting, and—and this is the big one—too time-consuming, too hard. There is no need to impose language or literature or art or even math on anyone. Those who have interest in math, can simply choose to study it; those with interest in language, can do the same. One of their more vocal proponents, so I heard, spoke at a town hall meeting, citing, a la ancient Greek rhetoric, the case of his own children: they simply hate, he stated contentiously, taking “superfluous” courses that are not in their area of study. His children, he apparently argued, would do much better (or at least be much happier) were they allowed simply to take courses in which they had genuine interest. Their grades would be better, their attitude better, their experience of college, much better overall.
Now on the surface of it, that argument might seem to make sense. It is at least in part, right. No doubt the grades of the students—and I don’t mean just one person’s children but all students—would be higher. No doubt the students would seem happier, as they could simply take whatever they wanted. And, at any rate, if they were unhappy, they would have no one to blame but themselves. All true.
But the rationale for core requirements isn’t to make college enjoyable for students. College is, for many people, a very enjoyable and even “fun” time in their lives; but it is fun in spite of, in most cases, not because of the core requirements. I remember signing up for classes that I didn’t really want to take but I was required to take. And I made the most of them. I learned to enjoy a class in something that I failed at first to appreciate because I knew that somehow it was ultimately beneficial. I didn’t know then, but that somehow was the result of a group of faculty members sitting around a table and determining for me what was good for me. Their authority for that assessment lay in their expertise, their study, their publications and, yes, their instincts. They did not consider the complaints of students. They did not consider the much more vociferous complaints of parents. They did not have a “target number” of credits that they were aiming for. Rather, they considered only what they sincerely believed was good for me, or at least me envisioned as the average Dickinson student. And though I didn’t then know precisely why I was thankful for their guidance, I was ultimately very thankful for it.
I say ultimately because at the time—like nearly everyone, I had fun in college in spite of the workload, not because of it—I would never have said that I was happy to have all those distribution requirements. But I understood the reason for them, even then. And perhaps, in some general way, I was grateful for them, even then. I am more grateful for them now because I know what they did for me: they forced me to learn. To learn mathematics, science, art and even Latin. But I would never have been able to say as much then or now, had the Dickinson core been cut to its core, been trimmed, been decimated in the name of some practical goal like the rate of graduation, appeasing overly concerned parents or making students’ college experience generally happier or more enjoyable. In fact, I would have been cut to my own core, for my intellectual and to some extent spiritual core was formed then and now is and will forever be indebted to that liberal arts education that I received so many years ago. I say it again: I would have been cut to what would ultimately form my own core.
So I wish my friend and his college well. Would that that institution come to its senses and hold fast to the core of its curriculum, of its very being, and preserve its character that it might vouchsafe that character to those whom it seeks to educate for a better life and a better future. What for each student might well become his or her very core is at stake.