I was never very good in science classes. I muddled through high school bio, physics and chemistry, but it was never my thing. When I got to Colgate I was pretty disappointed that I would have to take classes in science and math. CORE curriculum mandated that I had to take these classes, but I would have much preferred another class in political science or history.
But let’s face it, I needed a class in statistics and earth science. I couldn’t come out of a liberal arts college completely ignorant of an understanding of things like that. I know that CORE curriculum isn’t something we all get excited about, but it really is good for us. I was therefore a little disappointed when I saw Mr. Stowers’ frustrated lamentations over its present existence in last week’s commentary section.
It was disappointing to hear complaints about two of the most important and necessary classes in the Core, Challenges of Modernity and Legacies of the Ancient World. The casual dismissal of some of the most important texts that affect our modern world as being taught simply “so we may sound intelligent at cocktail parties” was disheartening. While sounding smart at parties is never a bad thing, if you think that is the purpose of those classes, you probably weren’t paying attention.
I’m not saying these classes were smooth for me either; I still have cringeworthy memories of arguing with my Modernity professor over “Mrs. Dalloway” and Karl Marx. The point is that most of the texts we read contained, in the eyes of the professor, an idea that was important, even essential to our modern world. The value placed on the ideas of good and evil, of economic justice, of love, of what makes a good life is to be determined by the reader, but the necessity of the class itself is indisputable.
Some people criticize Legacies for focusing on a relatively small part of the world – mostly the Mediterranean and the Levant – and its culture and people. However, it was this part of the globe that has most profoundly and undoubtedly shaped our American and more broadly, Western, society. Perhaps instead, would some students prefer to study Chinese notions of democracy and debate which shaped our world? What about the great African epics which have so influenced our literature for centuries? Or perhaps we could study how American law and language is derived from Aboriginal Australia?
I’m being somewhat facetious, of course, since most of the above-mentioned scenarios aren’t true. Most of our language is derived from Greek and Latin, and most of the rest is derived from other Romance languages. Christianity and Islam, two of the world’s largest religions, originated there, as did Judaism before them. We live in a world shaped so profoundly by Greece, Rome and their region that we take it for granted and don’t even know it: it’s everything from Juvenal decrying the decadence of entrenched wealthy elites in Rome to Drake’s lyrics about knowing yourself – an inscription found on the temple at Delphi.
In his commencement address, President Edward Case, before he sent the men of Colgate off to war in 1942, had this to say: “We have tried to give you as a guide to living, not a code of rules, but a ruling spirit.” The literature and history found in CORE teach us what people believe it means to be good – even, perhaps, how to emulate that. Case also indicated that when the war was over, that it would not just be technically-minded men who would reshape the world. “Intelligent and responsible direction is the first necessity if the mechanisms [of democracy] are not to run amuck. High purpose without technique is futile; Technique without high purpose is fatal.” These CORE classes, especially those about literature and history, teach us purpose, and how others have discovered their purpose in the past. If you read long enough, you’ll find that we are not the first society in 5,000 years to confront difficult issues that required people to answer and define who they were and what they were about. Mr. Stowers would do well to sit down for a second, reflect and be humble; the texts and ideas we study in Challenges and Legacies shape the world as we know it. Better yet, they allow us to look to the past for inspiration.
Stowers is right to say that the liberal arts academy is facing an identity crisis. So is our country, and our world. At a time where liberal, western-style democracy is being pushed back against – by Russia, by China, and in the Philippines, Turkey and Central Europe – we need to return to our roots, to know ourselves and our origins. CORE teaches us to do that, as others have done before us. Nor do I begrudge Mr. Stowers for questioning why things are ordered as they are.
Socrates, after all, would approve.