The Association for Core Texts and Courses

"Supporting Liberal Arts Core Text Curricula Around the World"

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Stephen Zelnick
Director ACTC and Temple University's Intellectual Heritage Program

I want to start off by telling you about a not-so-secret love affair I have been carrying on for the past twenty-five years. I have been in love with my university, with Temple University, an institution that has won my heart.

Temple University began in the 1880's when the minister of the Baptist Temple in North Philadelphia, a comfortable and respectable middle-class congregation, looked about him and discovered a population of factory workers, among whom were many talented and ambitious young men. Russell Conwell, our founder, invited seven of these young members of the "mechanick classes" to study with him in his offices in the evenings, with the aim of preparing them for college. Conwell quickly discovered their hunger for learning and that there were many more in nearby neighborhoods who hungered for the opportunity to develop themselves and expand their life prospects.

Soon after, Temple College was chartered, and, to its lasting credit, opened its doors to women and to African Americans and to the children of recent immigrants (then Catholics and Jews, and, these days, Muslims and Buddhists). Over the years, Temple has continued to be the ladder for young people (and increasingly not so young people), from economically modest backgrounds and who are often the first in their families to attend college.

This means so much to me because I am a graduate of Temple University, and in some way a great-great grandson of Russell Conwell, which would have come as a surprise to my Jewish great-great grandmother in Kiev and no doubt to Reverend Conwell, too. The simplest way to put this is to observe that my father, an immigrant from Rumania, never saw the inside of a school as he was growing up in Europe and was illiterate in several different languages, while I have been privileged to become an English professor. So, this is a good reason to be in love.

These days my students tend to be as unlike me and my background as I was to my professors. They are twenty-five percent African American, and twelve percent Asian, and five percent Latino, and fifty-three percent female, and fifteen percent non-traditional in age, and more than ever before my students work close to full-time while they are students and many have families. But as always, they are bright and ambitious and continue the tradition at Temple of aspiring to expand their hearts and minds and their opportunities.

I bother to reveal my personal affections here because it helps with my topic for today's talk. Temple University has been strong because it has an educational mission. It knows what it is about. I suspect that many colleges and universities have similar commitments that inspire respect and affection.

The contemporary university, sad to say, is faced with a major crisis, and largely because at the undergraduate level it is being contaminated by vocationalism, professionalism, and the specializing research agenda of the faculty. At the same time, students come to college poorly prepared, unlettered, undisciplined about their studies, lacking a foundation to understand the traditions of the academy and the fit between academic life and the lives they lead. The open curriculum of free choice feeds the general incoherence, assuming that students -- ignorant of what the academy is and of the larger world and its demands -- are somehow able to make useful choices about what they want and need. This openness is a recipe for disaster; a charming disaster as Plato may say, but a disaster nonetheless.

Undergraduate education should add up to something, and free choice in the curriculum is not likely to achieve that. Over a very few years and competing with many distractions, educators somehow must reorient a student's understanding of what knowledge is, provide at least some of the foundations in several fields of inquiry, and polish academic skills. On many days, I am not sure we can get this done, but I am pretty sure we cannot accomplish this without knowing what we are doing. A curriculum must be a defined arrangement of courses, one that is sequenced and in line with student needs and an understanding of how students develop.

Many schools have turned to a core curriculum, but too often these cores are not attuned to students but to other needs. I see three types of cores: (1) a core offering students open choice among a wide array of courses -- this type reflects the needs and interests of the faculty; (2) a core with required selections from long menus of courses -- this tends to represent the interests of departments in dividing the enrollment spoils; and (3) curricula with required foundational core courses, which is the only type aimed at understanding the educational needs of students.

I believe the time is right to have a serious discussion about what undergraduate education adds up to. The recent report by the National Association of Scholars shows that many of our most prestigious colleges and universities have abandoned required courses and opted instead to allow the students themselves and the fashionable issues to shape the baccalaureate experience. NAS paints a gloomy picture. Our organization, however, tells a different story. ACTC schools feature required courses based on texts of major cultural significance. There are hundreds of such schools, and we hope to increase that number.

The popular media has picked up part of this story. They have focused on the skyrocketing costs. This week's Newsweek has a cover story that tells us that it costs as much as a $1,000 a week to educate our young. What they have not investigated is what students and their families receive for this astronomical figure. I can imagine an education that may be worth such a huge capital investment, but I don't believe that this quality education is being delivered in many places. This conversation needs to take place among families, students, legislatures, educators, government, and the business sectors. How can we make the best of the narrow opportunities we
have to educate the young to their best potential?

The source of many of the problems in today's university is, and it pains me to say it, the faculty itself. In the past generation of the professoriate, my generation, we have established a hierarchy that has damaged undergraduate education.

In this hierarchy, teaching General Education courses belongs to the young faculty, the newest arrivals, while established faculty teach graduate courses. The understanding is that teaching basic courses is something anyone can do. As one colleague put it, beginning instructors are full of enthusiasm; "they can teach the phone directory with excitement."

In fact, new faculty "get stuck" with teaching basic courses because they cannot muster the political weight to get out of it and teach their next article, which is where privilege takes you. The winners in this contest are those who position themselves so that teaching is never done at the expense of one's research career. The goal is to teach highly specialized students, in small seminars, where often the students teach themselves, so the instructor is not distracted from career building.

Much rhetoric will try to convince us that the best teachers are also the most active researchers. This does happen. However, as a general rule the obligations and the nature of the work required for serious research and devoted teaching are not compatible. Research requires concentration and narrow focus. Instruction, especially at the General Education level, requires a broad view that goes far beyond a single topic and even beyond the comfort of disciplinary habits and methodologies. General Education teaching lives at the boundaries between general discussion and the beginnings of disciplined academic activity. To a research scholar this will likely appear diffuse and careless. In addition, General Education level instruction welcomes distraction. The thirty students in an introductory course do not as yet have a discipline of inquiry. They have not yet signed on to asking only the questions that a respectable English major is invited to ask. And so inquiry is going to be far more open and unexpected. And students at this level will bring their real life problems and views to bear on academic questions and personalize what they study. Researchers tend to be people who have succeeded in structuring their lives on the basis of their own needs; general education instructors in contrast exercise generosity to the needs of others. These are some of the reasons, I have observed, that researchers quite understandably try their best to avoid General Education teaching and are often very bad at that kind of teaching.

We have, then, two basic needs: a curriculum that is well defined and a faculty that is suitable to the task. The curriculum needs a foundation, a settled upon outlook on learning that requires also an agreed upon set of texts and approaches to these texts, and also an agreed upon understanding of students and their needs.

People who teach core texts at the General Education level need the recognition and support for doing real teaching, for providing students an appetite for learning, enticing them to abandon the parochialisms that constrict them, encouraging them to grow through the painful disabilities in reading and writing and thinking, providing disciplines of learning, and pushing students to quality.

At the same time, instructors at this level must be masters of their texts and the traditions of those texts. There is nothing more difficult than making the great texts comprehensible to introductory students -- boiling down these texts to their power vectors, and finding points of contact with the world within and around our students requires wit and imagination, and a refiguring of the text beyond its original context.

Let me suggest some examples.

Reading Pericles' "Funeral Oration", we come upon the issue of respect for law. Thucidydes reports that Pericles praised Athens for being a community where citizens "obey the magistrates and the laws,..." This seems clear enough, but it becomes much more clear when we translate it to our own circumstances. We come to a traffic light at 3:00 a.m. The light is red. We (A) go through the intersection because there are no cars around; or (B) we stop (1) because there may be a policeman Iying in wait, and we fear receiving a ticket, or (2) we are habituated to
obeying the law because it is the law. Which of these options represents the respect for the law Pericles has in mind? In B (2), how large a police force is required for a community that has achieved that kind of respect for law? And, to turn back this questioning to the Greeks, what has any of this to do with the claims Pericles is making for Athenian democracy?

This example represents what I have come to call a point of contact. It is a skill that General Education instructors need, the ability to take what may seem merely honorific in a classic text and make it problematic and relevant. If made successfully, a point of contact allows the student to relate the classic usefully to a modern concern and, at the same time, encourages a sharper reading of Pericles.

Let's try another, the profound difficulty of opening up an understanding of Plato's forms. The caricatured version of this moment in teaching is well known. The instructor talks about "triangleness", an essential quality shared by all triangles. Or "chairness", that form by which each individual chair we encounter in the world is, indeed, a chair. These illustrations may be correct, but they are also sterile and unlikely to excite an interest in Plato. The General Education instructor has to do better than this to entice the student to go farther into Plato and to begin to appreciate the power of his idealism.

Suppose instead of talking about chairs and triangles we were to ask students to construct a portrait of the perfect judge. We would easily accumulate a list of traits that all students in the class agreed upon, such traits as: a wide acquaintance with human experience, a sense of fairness, courage to withstand bribes and threats, the ability to maintain detachment, compassion, an understanding of the best interests of the community at large, and so on. Students generally marvel at how strong their agreement is in forming this profile, even though the students themselves come from different communities and backgrounds. They marvel even more when I ask them to consider whether they have ever met such a person or even believe that such a person exists. How then did they form this portrait? Do they actually have knowledge that does not come from experience? And if so, where does such knowledge come from?

To complete this exercise, I ask my students to construct their model of the perfect teacher; and finally, to bring the question really home, their portrait of the perfect student. Students are impressed that they can construct this portrait and reach such agreement. However, the last -- and perfectly Platonic question -- is whether they desire the goodness their portraits describe. Again, students are surprised that they do, especially when the portrait has been developed fully, with many challenging implications (even when it becomes clear, for example, that the excellent student should possess such unpleasant traits as humility in deference to the mastery of the teacher). All this is a far cry from triangles and chairs. Indeed, the portraits of the teacher and of the student and this procedure for reaching clear understanding tend to stay with the class throughout the semester, and, one hopes, long after that.

Or suppose the General Education instructor takes on the task of making students really interested in Darwin. My guess is that many instructors reach for controversy here. Did we come from apes? Is there a God? But these are questions Darwin says little about, and they leave out most of what is going on in our own world that is the true heritage of Darwin's science. I start with a true story that has rich local reference. The story goes like this:

An AIDS researcher working at the University of Pennsylvania on a pharmaceutical project that is expected to produce a truly effective drug in combating the HIV virus expressed both happiness and pessimism recently. The researcher happened to be the mother of a child in my wife's pre-kindergarten class. When my wife asked her whether this drug was "the answer", the researcher replied that the drug really does work, but that in the long run the prospects are discouraging. "It's such a smart virus," she said. "We cannot keep up with it."

At first the researcher's response seems puzzling. How can an organism so primitive as a virus outwit the best efforts of our most talented scientists? In what sense can an organism without anything we can identify as senses and without a brain "outwit" anything?

Scientists appreciate the talents of the HIV virus to recombine and present entirely new editions of itself. More recently, they have discovered the shocking ability of this and other viruses to share information by detaching fragments of themselves for others to acquire information about drugs we send to attack them. Some viruses have actually devised internal pumps to force out the chemicals meant to do them harm.

But how is this all possible in a life form so primitive?

Darwin's thinking on adaptation and evolution predicts this outcome. While the chemical agent sent to destroy the virus may kill off some or most of the offending virus, what survives by virtue of a variation resistant to the attack, becomes the dominant population. Whatever mechanism worked to protect against the chemical enemy becomes a major trait for all succeeding generations, thus rendering the assault ineffective. Because of this and other failed efforts -- the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics, for example -- contemporary medical scientists have a new respect for evolutionary thinking on adaptation and the struggle for existence.

This point of contact has the wonderful quality of focusing on a major contemporary story and introducing an example of Darwin's theory at work. And unlike the controversy approach, we are here discussing science and not social and political issues. And the worry about AIDS is all too terribly real for our students, so Darwin helps them understand what is going on in the world around them and for themselves.

Now that you have the basics of these points of contact, let me pose the kind of problem I love to pose my students. I call this one "Freud and Midnight Basketball", and it goes like this. A while back, a lawmaker arrived at the idea of providing midnight basketball at the recreation centers in the worst urban ghettoes. Some argued, however, that his was a very bad idea. Basketball as played in these neighborhoods is a violent, confrontational game, with dominance and humiliation as a major objective of the players. Why, these people argued, introduce a violent game into a setting that already has its full measure of violent behavior? Freud in Civilization and its Discontents lays the basis for explaining exactly why this makes very good sense. How would Freud explain the usefulness of providing Midnight Basketball in the ghetto?

I bother to try your patience with these self-congratulatory examples of teaching craft to help you see that instruction at the General Education level requires a major imaginative effort on the part of instructors. And I would claim that this effort surpasses that required at "higher" levels of teaching. As a colleague of mine suggested, at the General Education level, even with a proscribed syllabus, instructors must become the authors of their courses and produce imaginative and timely retellings of the old texts to help restore to them their power and point. Dead Texts? Socrates? The Bible? Darwin? We labor to bring them to life.

It is common to say that we teach our subject but that we primarily teach our students. The force of this remark is special in the General Education setting. We are in the business in these basic core courses of manufacturing young men and women, helping them over their initial discouragements, helping them to affirm who they are and where they come from while, at the same time, inviting them to entertain larger conceptions of themselves and of their world.

Make no mistake, when we encourage our students to begin to think like us, to ask challenging questions, to inquire after the warrants that back our claims for knowledge (let alone truth), we are asking them to change themselves fundamentally and in no small degree to isolate themselves from the comforts of group thinking and easy truths. Plato had it right, when the fettered man enslaved by the cave's shadows first rises up and turns towards the light, the experience is painful in his frozen joints and his benighted eyes. His friends will laugh at him for what he now claims to see and question, and in the end they may do more than ridicule him. Academic culture invites our students to take a bold step, and teachers of these students must recognize fully what is at issue. As a student in our program put it: "at first I was angry with this course because it was messing with my mind, but then I saw that it was messing with everybody's mind."

Faculty in such a setting must be attuned to the students -- who they are and where they come from. We must be patient with their puzzlement and impatience with academic questions. We need to be aware of how we endanger their comfortable prejudices. In our program, for example, we teach the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to students, many of whom have grown up with strenuous indoctrinations in these texts. Some students complain, in fact, that the Scriptures are so important that we should not be reading them, especially reading them with care. This comment sounds absurd, but the General Education teacher has to know exactly what that remark means and how it is a challenge to us, and then what to do about it.

To get the student even part way out of the cave takes many hours of our time, sitting knee to knee with students, and pursuing their very real questions and concerns. It requires a fundamental act of caring, an act of great generosity. These days, it is clear to me, that this is what the great majority of our students need and too few receive. This teaching is the soul of the universities, and too often is not prized in our current regimes of learning.

In the present understanding of institutional values, the rewards go to the researcher and often to the researcher who conceives research most narrowly. I often am reminded of Kafka's Hunger Artist who wins the prize by making himself thin almost to disappearing.

The momentous and difficult task of educating our young is given over to rookies, to junior faculty, but also to part-time employees, or full-time adjuncts who teach at a school for a few years and then are hustled away like vagrants. This is a part of the recipe for disaster.

The teaching described above requires a teacher who is generous in lending out her mind to students, working painstakingly to open new understandings, re-imagining the excitement of discovery in a person beginning, we hope, a life-long journey towards enlightenment -- with patience, humor, and caring. None of it is easy. Like all of God's work, it is most difficult.

There are many who have this calling. The present systems of employment and rewards do not favor them. This mis-fit is becoming clearer every day.

Just how bad is it? Bad enough that students and the public at large have begun to voice their displeasure. Time and Newsweek have begun to question the sacred rights of our institutions and the faculty. Legislatures are beginning to call to account colleges and universities for placing the needs of undergraduates and their families so low on the agenda. Families forced to pay a ransom price (for a prince or princess) for four years of schooling are beginning to ask what they receive for their money. And well they should.

So the moment is right to answer such questions, and the core text outlook, to my mind, has found its moment.

We began the Association for Core Texts and Courses because the several associations supporting core curriculum and its development were too broad. The courses of study lacked focus and concentration, offering menus of courses that suited faculty and departments but had little connection with students and their needs. In this feeble conception, cores are general goals but they tend not to be stipulated courses of study pursuing definite educational goals. Another lack among these national organizations was that of an action agenda. From our beginning ACTC has had in mind changing things.

Our plan then was, first, to build an organization of like-minded people and especially of people who direct foundational programs in core text courses. By our definition, a core text may well be a classic, but may also be a text of modern relevance that has been recognized as weighty and with a bearing on issues of consequence. The shared view is that these courses must add up to something important. We are looking for a certain kind of educator, and we are finding them in large numbers. In many cases, when we call a prospective member, the person on the other end knows just what we are talking about. Many have responded with a "where have you been -- I've been waiting for this call!"

We are building our membership. We have doubled our numbers from last year and expect to be able to do that again next year.

We have received institutional support from eleven schools, who have found either $500 or a $1,000, often from tight budgets, to support what we are about. We need to increase these numbers and also find grant money to allow us to fulfill our agenda.

From the beginning we have talked about publications, and at this point we are part way to our goal. We have our first issue of a newsletter and the funding to sustain it, thanks to Boston University and to the efforts of Brian Jorgensen and Allen Speight.

Our next step is to develop a journal to provide a vehicle for discussing the works we teach from the vantage point of teaching. This means bucking the trend of academic publication by writing in a way to make ourselves understood, even by a general audience, and finding significance for readers who are not reading with a professional career eye but with the concerns of alert, thoughtful people who are living their lives in the world. These essays should also help us share what we know about teaching and advance our work in the classroom. We hope to be able to make a place for essays written with grace and power to delight and inspire our readers.

From the beginning ACTC has talked about the career instability faced by so many talented and devoted teachers. Something needs to be done to raise the profile of these people in the academy and to secure a firmer connection with the institutions they serve so well. One way is share around among ACTC schools the talented instructors who are forced to wander in and out of our programs. But the strong solution is to raise this problem to higher visibility and compel organizations like the AAUP to face the facts about faculty life for the great many "adjuncted" colleagues of the X, Y and Z generations.

Another front to fight on is the undergraduate curriculum itself. One doesn't have to be a cultural or political conservative to enlist in the struggle for curricular coherence. The time is ripe for a nation-wide discussion of fundamentals and foundational texts. ACTC needs to be positioned to play a leading role in this discussion.

So, ahead of us stand several tasks: (1) build ACTC individual memberships and institutional commitments, (2) find funding; (3) develop publications; (4) find career stability for our scholar gypsies, and (5) incite the national debate on curricular foundations.

ACTC has, from its first glimmerings, been democratic in its outlook. We welcome deliberations and wide exchanges of views, we don't discriminate against colleges in favor of universities, or the prestigious over the supposed ordinary. We harbor no hostility to ethnic struggles for inclusion, to women, to minorities. These are part of our discussion. We favor hard thinking, tolerance, but also toughness.

As my colleague Scott Lee likes to say, the very activity of designing core text courses and programs force faculty to engage each other in order to arrive at an agreed upon curriculum. The discussion goes on., as new challenges arise and as growing experiences suggest change. Faculty in the isolation of each idiosyncratic course can never have this discussion, and we are all the poorer for that isolation.

Common study, core text study helps form communities of learners -- and, really, how else could it come about?

Association for Core Texts and Courses & The ACTC Liberal Arts Institute at
Saint Mary's College of California:

1928 Saint Mary's Road, Moraga, CA 94556
Ph: 925 631 8597

ACTC Temple University Office:
1114 W. Berks Street 214 Anderson Hall Intellectual Heritage Program Temple University Philadelphia, PA 19122-6090