Dr. Kevin Hester teaching Theology at the Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee

The New Welch College Core

Last year Welch College unveiled its new “Welch College Core.” The Welch College Core is a completely revised general education curriculum that every student who comes to Welch as a freshman and graduates with a bachelor’s degree will take.* Over the next few posts, I will be discussing the new Welch College Core. I’ll start with a discussion of the rationale for a core curriculum and then talk about what the core actually looks like.

“The Discipline and Furniture of the Mind”

Traditionally, colleges and universities had core curricula for general education. These curricula carefully outlined a series of prescribed courses that would carry out the institution’s goals for a breadth of knowledge to provide what the Yale Report of 1828 called “the discipline and furniture of the mind” and thus produce a truly educated person.

By “discipline of the mind,” the report meant what we today would call logical thinking or critical thinking. The “furniture of the mind” referred to passing on content—knowledge and wisdom and virtue—to students. The traditional core curriculum was embodied in what historians of American higher education call “the old-time college.”

The Unity of Knowledge

This notion of a core curriculum was based on the unity of knowledge. Most of the old time-colleges were founded by Protestant denominations. But even most of the state universities in nineteenth-century America had required chapel and required religion courses, and the way they approached education was from the vantage point of the traditional Protestant worldview. Even the Unitarian schools, for most of the nineteenth-century, believed in a basic theistic and Judeo-Christian view of knowledge.

The basic implication of this Judeo-Christian approach to knowledge in American higher education for the core curriculum is that this worldview presupposed the unity of knowledge. It made sense to have a unified core curriculum that embodied the best of classical and Judeo-Christian liberal arts and sciences. That is because these Christian scholars believed that the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the classical wisdom that overlapped with it, embodied the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The Fragmentation of Knowledge

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, however, the unity of knowledge broke down, giving way to the fragmentation of knowledge. And this breakdown of the unity of knowledge was the direct accompaniment to the secularization of the academy in America, a story so well, and sadly, told by James Burtchaell in his classic book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of College and Universities from their Christian Denominations. As leading American intellectuals began to doubt the truth claims of Holy Scripture, they had to latch onto something in the place of biblical Christianity. This tended to be empirical knowledge, knowledge that could be substantiated by evidence from the five senses.

This development displaced theology as the queen of the sciences, replacing it with empirical science. One result of this process was that the emphasis in education gradually moved from the educated person—the broad, generalistic schooling of the classically trained mind—to the scientist. The shift was from generalist to specialist.

Traditional education in the Western world valued broad interdisciplinary learning that made connections between the different disciplines. And it valued this sort of learning because of its convictions about the unity of knowledge. On the contrary, modern education, because it devalued the unity of knowledge, moved away from an emphasis on broad, interdisciplinary learning and increasingly emphasized specialization and specialized fields of study.

Education as Career Training

A factor that accompanied the move toward specialization was that college education became more and more identified with career training. Before the twentieth century, the public mission of the baccalaureate degree was to provide broad general education that would produce truly educated leaders who had classically trained minds and knew how to be exemplary citizens and leaders in society. If at all, preparation for specific careers was seen as only a secondary or tertiary mission of undergraduate degree programs. Colleges and universities were not technical training centers. They were educational institutions. Their aim was to produce, not technicians, but well-educated leaders. This all changed in the twentieth century.

Student-Centered Theories

Another way that modernity was affecting education at this time was the student-centered learning approaches that educational theorists such as John Dewey were promoting. Traditionally, the faculty saw curriculum as its prerogative, indeed as its territory. Students did not have the knowledge to decide which courses to piece together for a good general education. The faculty did. The faculty had not only the knowledge but also the wisdom and experience and understanding of the world, past and present, that gave them the ability to decide for young adults how best the latter could become educated persons.

However, in the twentieth century, educational theorists began to question this received wisdom of the Western intellectual tradition. The new student-centered theories demanded that colleges give students more choice in putting together their own personalized general education curriculum. Indeed, such modern theories held (and hold) that knowledge is about the individual creating meaning and knowledge subjectively, rather than about the transmission of objective knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. If this is true, they concluded, of course students should be in the driver’s seat in deciding how they are to be appropriately educated.

The Shrinking of Content

Another effect of the new educational philosophy was that content became less important in general education. Technical skill and critical thinking are really the goals of education in a modern democratic society, it was thought. So the earlier idea of a faculty committed to transmitting ancient wisdom to its students, inculcating truth in them, with that faculty prescribing a curriculum that would best accomplish that goal, was dispensed with.

Remember the Yale Report of 1828 that I mentioned earlier? That document had said that higher education was about the discipline and furniture of the mind. One could say that modernity placed almost all the emphasis on the discipline of the mind—intellectual skills and breadth—but almost none on the furniture of the mind—teaching a body of knowledge designed to transfer truth to students. Obviously, this approach would demand a move away from the core curriculum of the past.

Thus the lack of commitment to the unity of knowledge and the resultant specialization, together with modern student-centered theories of learning and knowledge, eroded the classic core curriculum. The more modernity took hold, the more knowledge became fragmented, and the more knowledge became fragmented, the more the curriculum that transmitted that knowledge became fragmented. And the pace of this erosion was only quickened as students were more and more given the reins over the best way to be educated. Furthermore, the sheer number of courses required in general education gradually dwindled, with specialization and career training now the order of the day.

*This will not be the case with students who transfer in from other institutions.

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