WHERE HAVE WE BEEN AND
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
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
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
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
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
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
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?