Trends Toward Renewal of the Core Curriculum
Recently there have been trends in the other direction, back toward a very specific and prescribed core curriculum. These moves have come from opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum.
On the Left
Remember earlier I said that the educational modernists wanted to move away from an emphasis on teaching a body of knowledge designed to transmit truth to students. Well, ironically, some of the call for a more prescribed core curriculum has come from the left. After succeeding in destroying the last vestiges of the old Western canon and traditional core curriculum, many on the extreme left have called for a return to a more prescribed core curriculum. Now of course, their desire is not to transmit a body of knowledge to students in order to inculcate ancient wisdom and virtue and truth in them. Quite the contrary—they want to be intentional about displacing the vestiges of the older thinking in their students and replacing them with the ideology of modernity and postmodernity.
This makes sense. If you are deeply committed to radical leftist ideology, if you have dedicated your life to Marxist or feminist ideals, and the reason you went into education to begin with was to fight for a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, radical environmental ideology, and the redistribution of wealth, then it makes sense that you would want to transmit to and inculcate in your students these ideas and ideals.
Conservative Movement toward the Core Curriculum
However, the main impetus for renewing the general education core curriculum has been from conservative thinkers on higher education, both within and outside the evangelical community. It’s helpful to use a term often employed by Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School:
Renewal through Retrieval
Leading conservatives argue that we must renew general, liberal arts education in the American college by retrieving time-tested educational models of the past. And this is in both the form and the content of those historical models. The form involves how the curriculum is put together, that is, being largely prescribed rather than a series of electives. The content involves the transmission of ancient wisdom, virtue, and truth.
This renewal of the core curriculum started back in the 1980s and 1990s. Educational leaders in the political sphere wrote reports criticizing leading universities for their lack of the form or content of a traditional core curriculum. Examples of this include William Bennett’s To Reclaim a Legacy and Lynne Cheney’s 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students. These voices were joined by scholars and authors such as Allan Bloom, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, heavily influencing the conservative conversation on higher education, and other thinkers such as New Criterion editor Roger Kimball. The mantle was taken up by conservative think tanks and professional societies like the National Association of Scholars and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and by higher education public interest groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
During this time, scores of colleges have undergone curricular revision, and other colleges have been started to reflect these conservative ideals for higher education. The majority of these institutions have been conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic institutions, but have also included Eastern Orthodox and Jewish colleges. Some of these schools have stripped the entire curriculum down to a reading list of great books, while most have simply prescribed a curriculum that their faculty believe will produce an educated person to whom has been transmitted a body of knowledge that reflects time-tested eternal verities, produces breadth of knowledge and introduction to diverse ideas and modes of inquiry, and produces competent citizen-leaders who are good critical thinkers.
Almost all of these schools have seen themselves as being motivated by their conservative Christian worldview, which reasserts the unity of knowledge under God and the duty of teachers as wise men and women who bequeath their students with a body of knowledge that they, in their professional judgment, believe will produce in them an educated mind rooted in the Christian view of the world and life.
The Vision for Welch College
This approach to the general education curriculum is what I long for at Welch College. We have always argued strongly for the unity of knowledge rooted and grounded in the Christian world-and-life-view. We have held to theology as the queen of the sciences. We have continued to believe that we’re engaged in something more life-transforming than mere technical or career training, and this involves a broad generalist approach rather than an emphasis on specialization.
We have valued faculty-directed learning that is mentorship-driven and student-sensitive. This is seen in the new conceptual model for Teacher Education that Dr. Thurman Pate and Dr. Etta Patterson have produced, which counters Deweyan and constructivist models of education, advocating more traditional approaches to teaching and learning.
We are a community of faith and learning that holds conservative, classical, and broadly traditional learning in high esteem, while most of us would not define this as narrowly as some, as limited to the great books and classical languages and literature. This approach arises from our time-honored commitment to traditional values in private and public life that we believe receive their motivation from Holy Scripture and from the consensual wisdom of the Christian tradition.
What we have put forward is a truly core curriculum, a prescribed course of study for every student that enters Welch College as a freshman and graduates from a baccalaureate degree program.* I see this as more consistently, creatively, and carefully putting into curricular form the academic values we already espouse.
By embodying our academic values in a core curriculum for all our students, we will be enabled more effectively and fruitfully to fulfill the mission to which God has called us: to educate leaders to serve Christ, His Church, and His world through biblical thought and life, as we move forward for the future of Welch College, the glory of God, and the extension of Christ’s kingdom.
*This will not be the case with students who transfer in from other institutions.