Core Values: Taking a stand for liberal education

“To paraphrase Sir Richard Livingstone, ‘The sign of a good university is the number of subjects that it declines to investigate,’” Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote in 1953, 24 years after his tenure as the fifth president of the University of Chicago began. What Hutchins meant was that a proper university should be oriented around a few select subjects that have proven essential to social integrity and personal development throughout history. It should do so while ignoring intellectual fads and contrived fields made up to entertain dilettantes or credential lesser talents. Hutchins’s ambitions are signaled elsewhere in his writings: “The university should renounce any ambition to increase the ability of its graduates to acquire external goods…Instead, it should see to it that in the college or in the university itself students might first learn how to deal with ideas. This means an education in disciplines designed to teach the student how to discover, analyze, and utilize ideas. At the same time he should become acquainted with the principal ideas which have directed the activities of mankind. These are to be found in books.” Certain of these books would be “Great,” and they would form the basis for a Common Core Curriculum at Hutchins’s university, a model from which the University of Chicago has regrettably strayed.

The subject of the Core curriculum excites many passions, from Chicago purists to reformists who want to strike the idea of “Great Books” from the educated consciousness. Recently, the Chicago Maroon undertook a multi-part commentary on the current requirements of the Common Core, though the editorials ended up rather bloodless. (This is due, I suspect, more to the requirements of the editorial form than the convictions of the editors.) The Core as envisioned by Hutchins was stricter than the form followed today, which resembles glorified distribution requirements in comparison. Hutchins mandated that students not only take classes across disciplines, but that they read virtually the same books (the “Great Books”), selected for their enduring influence on human thought and activity. Since then, the Core has become more elastic, partly due–one imagines–to marketing concerns (a college becomes more enticing to potential enrollees when they don’t need to worry too much about being challenged in subjects outside their interests) and partly to academic politics. A generation of professors educated in the latter half of the 20th century–when work by “dead white men” fell out of fashion–have complicated what counts as seminal work. The result is that humanities courses like “Human Being and Citizen” (where you read a lot of Greek philosophy) are offered alongside “Media Aesthetics” (where you learn from latter-day geniuses like the Wachowski Brothers). This is the bloody crossroads where Hutchins’s Core, firmly oriented toward the goal of educating the country’s intellectual leaders, clashes with the democratic need for inclusivity.

The excitement attending the Core is fitting, given that the Core itself was passionately conceived. While Hutchins’s desire for a picky university bears traces of Chicago’s frontier asceticism, Hutchins’s pedagogical mission brims with messianic zeal. “I am afraid, therefore, that I am proposing some notable sacrifices on the altar of reform. The first few generations of graduates of my educational system might suffer the same fate as the martyrs of the early church,” Hutchins writes in his 1943 book “Education for Freedom.” “They might be that phenomenon horrible to American eyes, financial failures. Yet it is possible that if the one college and the one university for which I hope could persevere, the blood of martyrs might prove to be the seed of an enlightened nation…They might become a light to this country, and through it to the world.”

Hutchins’s vision shares a few characteristics with millenarian strains of religion, promising short-term persecution and ultimate vindication. Most upsetting, I think, to opponents of Hutchins and his curriculum is the implication that this kind of university education is meant for a select few. (Hutchins could be insufferably snobby. He once told the Economic Club of Detroit, “The whole apparatus of football, fraternities, and fun is a means by which education is made palatable to those who have no business in it.” If the University of Chicago is “where fun comes to die,” Hutchins is implicated in killing it.) More than that, Hutchins presumes that only a few works in the history of humanity are worthy of dissemination and study, representatives of what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Surely modernity has shown us that human experience is too diverse to be represented by a few books, opponents to Hutchins may contend. Today, Hutchins’s curriculum is too biased, too elitist, too contrary to the American project, too indefensible. And yet we may need it now more than ever.

At its best, the Core embodies rigorous grounding in the fundamentals underpinning broad fields of study, including the humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences. Utility is what usually justifies education in America, and sometimes this extends to its breadth. The world’s problems often require an array of skills and knowledge to be confronted, since no single thing is exclusively the purview of the humanist or of the scientist. More importantly, we all tacitly assume that education is somehow positively connected to economic prosperity. Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz reiterate this correlation in their recent book “The Race Between Education and Technology,” showing how the United States has grown richer as it has become more literate. But as Andrew Hacker reminds us in the New York Review of Books, it may simply be that countries are educated because they are rich, and not rich because they are educated. Innovation and its attendant economic success usually come from outside the academy. Bill Gates loves talking about how he dropped out of Harvard.

But then, Hutchins’s Core was never meant for practicality, or even as an introduction to the specific, provincial concerns of different disciplines. This was its revolutionary contribution. Its focus was on the first principles informing each, the timeless standards by which enduring work in all the disciplines has been judged. In science, these standards can be learned through rigorous attention to the rules of evidence that show us, for example, that F = ma, and mathematics can assist by showing us the schematic logic behind this fact. The humanities and social sciences deal with the less material considerations of who we are and how we live. Together, the first principles of all these disciplines can inform the others. Science can tell the humanities what counts as evidence of reality in the physical world. The humanities can show science its methodological limits. A student will be able to do this after reading Descartes and taking serious physics. He or she will not gain these skills by deconstructing “The Matrix.”

In this regard, the Core is especially troubling because it insists on a hierarchy of works, especially in the humanities, where determining the “best which has been thought and said” might not only be difficult but possibly offensive. (Theories of dark matter and energy to the contrary, science has determined through relentless trial and error which principles are enduring.) Hutchins was aware of this, but did not apologize. For him, the best that has been thought and said–the Great Books–was accepted to the point of being self-evident: through time, these were the books still being discussed and dissected and implemented in the formation of individual and social character. Yet in the critical upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the idea of a “best” has been undermined by claims that the cultural legacy of the past was politically and historically contingent. Roland Barthes, perhaps more than anyone other than Susan Sontag, also showed how low culture could be scrutinized like the traditional high culture, and broad pushes for more expansive interpretations of “literature” were introduced into curricula nationwide. Surface evidence of this new kind of scholarship in the UofC’s Core is the presence of such courses as “Reading Cultures” and “Media Aesthetics.”

Such change had the paradoxical effect of making everything sacred precisely because nothing was. All ideas are equal, putting the University’s culture of ideas in a bind. In the humanities, it means that we are allowed to argue about ideas as long as we waive the right to be correct. We get a modern education at the cost of conviction. To ignore the importance of conviction is to ignore reality outside the academy. A year after graduation, it is the urgency of Socrates’s moral mission, and not the post-structuralist musings of Lyotard, that have proven essential to my conduct as a person–indeed, as a “human being and citizen.”

We all know that ideas, like people, are not in fact equal. Already, there are signs of a backlash against the inclusivity of recent traditions, critical and pedagogical. In the most recent issue of the literary magazine Tin House, Christopher Beha writes, “We are a generation removed from Sontag and Barthes; it is no longer illuminating or even especially charming to watch heavy intellectual machinery brought to bear on trivialities.” Trivialities are especially unimportant in an age where torture is seriously discussed as a military tactic, banks are bailed out while homeowners are not, and when we can gain health from stem cells at the cost of ignoring the definition of “human.” In this light, taking a nutrition class to fulfill a biological sciences requirement seems like a laughable waste of time and talent.

Hutchins intuitively understood what value lay in analyzing trivialities, and so he set the best young intellectual machinery to work on Plato and Aristotle and Newton and Marx. He wanted to provide scholars with the best resources available, to give them an education in the best that has been thought so that they could make the best use of their time. It takes courage to claim some ideas are better than others, and it takes a university with balls to institute a curriculum devoted to the ones it considers best. This does not necessarily imply the omission of other cultural traditions. It means that the the “Analects” of Confucius should be considered as a transforming text that resonates today, and not because it is “Chinese.” It means that Sappho should be considered for the enduring beauty of her thoughts on love and gender, and not because she is a “gay woman.”

This kind of education–broad, deliberate, courageous–is exemplified by Hyde Park’s most famous son. In his brief time in office, President Barack Obama has demonstrated thoughtfulness and moderation. His judgments are informed by moral sentiments without being dominated by them (sometimes to the point that his conviction regrettably waivers, as with the issue of closing Guantanamo detention facilities); he understands the stakes of all sides in serious debates; at bottom, he is concerned with ideas, and with ideas in books, and he deftly deploys serious words for serious purpose in ways his predecessor could not. Obama is the president who declared in his Inaugural Address, “The time has come to set aside childish things”–notably quoting from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a part of a book that 33 percent of the world’s population still considers the supreme best of what has been thought and said. Whether directed at debates about terrorism or reading Great Books, the notion reminds us that every generation lives in extraordinary times, all the more reason to seek once again, in Hutchins’s words, “the revelation of the possibilities of the highest powers of mankind.”