A Voluntary Core Curriculum

About once a decade, the Emory faculty revisits its liberal arts curriculum and asks what undergraduate students ought to know. Over the past forty years, the faculty has swung back and forth, sometimes virtually abandoning any effort to impose requirements. Indeed, that is the current situation. 

When I arrived at Emory in 1971, students had to take three courses in the natural sciences and mathematics, three in the social sciences, and three in the humanities, but the only required course was Drownproofing, offered in Physical Education. Later, for a while, students were required to take, among other courses, one in American history and two on the development of Western civilization.

But a few years ago the faculty returned to minimalism, with courses required only in broad areas, such as the humanities, sciences and social sciences, along with a foreign language and mathematics.  Hundreds of courses are available to satisfy general education requirements, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences. With that great number of courses to choose from, it is now possible (and indeed likely) that many students will graduate from Emory without ever taking a course in history or on the ideas that have shaped Western civilization or the origins or nature of democracy.

Responding to the inadequacy of that curriculum, a group of faculty members led by Professor Mark Bauerlein in the English Department established the Program in Democracy and Citizenship in Emory’s College of Arts and Science in 2007. I currently serve as the program’s director.

That program was devoted to providing courses and lectures centered on the knowledge required for young Americans to become responsible, informed citizens with a critical appreciation of the values, ideals and history of our nation—the reservoir of learning essential to civic literacy.

Then, in the fall of 2012 the program began its most ambitious initiative, a voluntary core curriculum. It consists of four interrelated courses for freshmen based on readings from great works in the Western intellectual tradition. Students who choose to take these courses will go a long way toward understanding Western civilization, which is the chief goal of traditional core curricula. Students are not required to take any of the courses, but merely encourage them to do so. Our objective is not to impose a new curriculum, but to nurture one.

A course in political science, taught by Randall Strahan, examines the foundations of American democracy, with readings from Locke, The Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Jefferson, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and others. 

A history course, taught by Patrick Allitt, surveys great books from the Bible to works by Machiavelli, Darwin, Freud, Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

Third, a philosophy course taught by Ann Hartle and Donald Verene examines various answers to the question of what is the good life for human beings, with readings from Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, Montaigne, Maimonides, Hume, and Kant.

Fourth, an English course taught by Mark Bauerlein gives students the opportunity to read great works of Western literature by such authors as Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Swift, and Wordsworth.

In the fall of 2013, we will add a course in Classical Literature, from Homer through Dante, enabling the English course to focus on great works of English and American literature beginning with Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The courses are supplemented by a speaker series, the Emory Williams Lectures in the Liberal Arts, which brings renowned outside lecturers and Emory faculty into conversations with students on a wide variety of subjects.

This voluntary core is based on the belief by participating faculty that many students want a coherent, interrelated series of courses that will satisfy a significant proportion of their general education requirements. They want to be introduced to some of the crucial questions that a liberal arts education should raise: What is the good life?  What is the best form of government?  What makes a great work of literature? Our voluntary core ensures that they’ll contemplate those questions and many others.

Only a handful of American colleges and universities still have a core curriculum that requires all students to take a series of courses, usually based on great works of the Western tradition. Such cores were typically put in place decades ago, for example, at Columbia or Chicago. Very few have been instituted in recent years. There are many reasons:  it has become increasingly difficult for faculty to agree about what should be in a core, growing specialization within disciplines has reduced the number of faculty interested in teaching in such a core, and many faculty suspect that such cores are efforts to advance a politicized agenda hostile to emerging disciplines or their areas of study.

Our voluntary core is not, however, intended to impart any particular political or ideological viewpoint.  A serious encounter with the great texts of the Western tradition requires students to think critically because the authors of these texts disagree on fundamental questions (take Adam Smith and Karl Marx, for example). The underlying premise of the voluntary core is simply that in order to understand and think critically about themselves and their world, students need to be exposed to the foundational texts that created and shaped that world.

We located faculty who were willing and indeed eager to teach these courses, which are limited to 25 students to encourage discussion. Then we negotiated with departmental chairs to ensure that each course could be taught at least once a semester.  A generous grant from the Thomas Smith Foundation and a trustee emeritus enabled us to compensate departments for their faculty members’ commitments and to create an exciting lecture series for students enrolled in the program. 

The “voluntary core” is an experiment, funded for a three-year trial period.

Although it is still too early to judge how successful we will be, we were encouraged by the fact that all four of our classes were at maximum capacity in the fall semester. A number of students took two of the four courses in the first semester of their freshman year and many signed up for at least one more for the second semester.  We were delighted by the fact that a significant number of students who enrolled in at least one of the courses were among our most gifted entering students, including recipients of merit awards and Emory Scholars.

We think this demonstrates that there is a critical mass of students eager for guidance about what constitutes a genuine liberal arts education and anxious to study great books.

Already, faculty not connected with the Program in Democracy and Citizenship have expressed interest in the possibility of teaching added sections of the courses we are offering.

Emory is just beginning yet another examination of the nature of a liberal arts education and we have argued that an old, venerated tradition of liberal arts education is worth reconsidering. We hope that the success of our program will demonstrate the continuing interest in what has traditionally been at the core of a liberal arts education—student engagement with great books and great ideas as a foundation for a life of learning and engaged citizenship.