Loyal to the Core

A reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed might think that humanities faculty spend all their time worrying about publish-or-perish, poor pay, and the dearth of jobs. But for a few days this month I was surrounded by humanities faculty who lived and breathed one thing: teaching the classics.

The place was a Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) brought together more than 250 devotees of literature, philosophy, and science to discuss “core texts,” sometimes called Great Books, such as Plato’s Republic or Newton’s Principia.

ACTC was formed in 1995 to further the “common study of world classics and other texts of major cultural significance” (to quote from its organizing statement). Most of its members teach courses in Western classics or Great Books, the “core curriculum” courses still required by some schools. (The courses often include Eastern and modern classics and even primary science texts). Most large universities have abandoned such curricula in favor of highly elastic “distribution” requirements.

What struck me about the ACTC meeting was the fact that the professors there see teaching and learning as intertwined. Studying a text in order to enhance teaching—rather than to develop a ”theory” about it—is an activity that they value.

So, in small seminars, these faculty plunged into intense discussions of such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Bible, Don Quixote, Plato’s Republic, and Augustine’s City of God. Again and again I heard expressions such as “we’re thinking of teaching this”—a prelude to an analysis of John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration.” Or, “I tried it this year with a fourth-year class”—before discussing the meanings in Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine.

One teaching technique—but far from the only one—is to use modern works to draw students into the classics. Her desire to bring the Odyssey to life led Barbara Stone of Shimer College to consider pairing Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God with the Odyssey. Some students, especially women, have trouble engaging with the heroic themes of the Odyssey, she has found. Perhaps a “woman’s odyssey” or life journey, as Their Eyes is, might help them appreciate it more.

In a similar vein, James Woelful of the University of Kansas offered seminar participants a mesmerizing précis of E. L. Doctorow’s 2000 novel, City of God, as a way of contrasting the religious world of Augustine and ours. Steven Epley of Samford University told how he uses recent film versions of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a foil for the novel, because they tell the story but downplay the Platonic ideals that he wants his students to perceive.

And with great humor, Maria Polski of East-West University in Chicago, described her course on “Who Wrote the Bible?” Although the class was composed of students who claimed to be open to biblical scholarship, students erupted into pandemonium when they concluded that Polski was challenging their beliefs; they got over it, however, as she legitimized research methods with such in-class exercises as hand-copying a story to see how many errors creep in.

Enthusiastic conversation at the conference spilled over from the seminars to the corridors. Incoming ACTC president Richard Kamber, a philosopher at the College of New Jersey, observed that attendees often say that they like ACTC programs much more than their professional meetings (such as the Modern Language Association). Stephen Zelnick, the first president of ACTC, commented that ACTC is a far cry from academic meetings where the focus is on finding a job or winning status in a field of specialization.

ACTC began when Zelnick, then the director of a year-long core course in the Great Books tradition at Temple University, proposed getting together with other faculty teaching similar classes. Working with J. Scott Lee, who became the organization’s executive director, Zelnick convened faculty from 23 universities. He figured that he had tapped most of the programs in existence, but the group has been growing ever since, with 126 colleges and universities represented in Memphis this year.

Does ACTC represent merely a holding action against the erosion of deep reading and thinking at our universities? Or will core curriculum programs based on the classics regain their once prominent place?

The evidence is mixed.

Most of the schools sending faculty to ACTC are small, and most are private. Many are Catholic, reflecting Catholicism’s respect for the tradition of Western scholarship. (Philip R. Sloan, professor of history and liberal studies at Notre Dame, is ACTC’s outgoing president.) Explicitly Protestant schools were not as well represented, although Baylor University, which has an interdisciplinary core texts program, sent several faculty members.

About 40 public universities were on the attendance list, but most of them are relatively obscure branches of state universities rather than the flagships. The most prestigious private schools were also underrepresented.

The plain fact is that most big state universities and most elite private ones have rejected the idea that there are great books that students should read. Notre Dame classicist Ralph McInerny argued at a Pope Center event last November that the religious underpinning of the Western classics makes them anathema to most of today’s humanities faculty. (Relativism and the stigma of authorship by “dead white males” are the other possible causes, said McInerny.)

Even Stephen Zelnick’s university, Temple, has replaced its core curriculum with a “general education” program, and the Intellectual Heritage Program he directed—now called Mosaic—has been reworked to service multicultural and “basic writing” agendas, giving diminished attention to classics and Western thought.

That’s the negative side. On the positive side, however, Columbia University, which has had a Western-civilization-based core curriculum for over ninety years, will help sponsor next year’s conference. And based on the quality of intellectual conversation that I experienced at the meeting, I harbor hope that the battle for the classics is not yet over.