Review: A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum

Mark Henrie’s A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum is a book that complements Joseph Schall’s A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, which is unsurprising as they are both published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization focused on promoting the study of “traditional” liberal arts curriculum (with a distinctly American and Christian bent). However, it only offers a brief defense of why liberal learning is important in its 23-page introduction. The rest of the book is more of a reference guide for aspiring students of the liberal arts – the actual “core curriculum,” providing lists of authors to read, both primary and secondary, together with very brief introductions on what each general subject are is “about.” I shall quickly review the reference guide section first, before spending the rest of this “review” focusing on the interesting issues that are raised in the brief introduction.

The Core Curriculum: America as a Utopia, and Christianity as Theology

In the reference guide section, Henrie asserts that a proper liberal education is predicated on a “core curriculum” with a foundation of eight broad areas: classical literature (Ancient Greek and Roman), ancient philosophy, the Bible, Christian thought before 1500, modern political theory, Shakespeare, pre-Civil War American history, and 19th century European intellectual History (Hegel, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche). One can immediately sense the strong bias – where is the cultural diversity? – but Henrie has already argued openly that a liberal education should be an introduction to the great ideas of Western civilization. In that sense, I cannot disagree with him. Henrie’s inclusion of American history may seem only relevant to Americans, but his argument for is that America is a living example of a utopian experiment based on founding principles that reflect major Western beliefs about society, morality, and philosophy. Thus, it is instructive to learn about this history and reflect on whether the experiment was an intellectual success. For a non-American like me, this is a fascinating insight into a possible origin of the conservative meme that America is “the greatest country in the world.” Rather than dismissing it as patriotic propaganda, I’m actually inclined to investigate this theory for myself in the future. Lastly, Henrie also includes a last chapter on “Ten More Courses,” consisting of other areas of a typical liberal arts education, such as early modern philosophy, art and music history, and notably, history of science. I would argue that science deserves a more prominent role in the core curriculum for today’s age, especially since those who choose a liberal education should know how to respond to people who dismiss them as scientifically illiterate. Rather than only history of science, there should be a class which more rigorously introduces non-science majors to common scientific modes of thinking. This is a topic which I plan to expand more in the future.

Henrie’s discussion of the core curriculum is also influenced by a distinctly Christian bent, especially his section on the Bible. He does include some lip service for non-believers (such as recommending C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity “to see what the fuss is all about”), but other than that he dislikes the study of Christianity as a religion, as it focuses on its social, anthropological, and historical aspects compared to engaging its ideas directly. This is in line with his general disapproval (mentioned in the introduction) of college education as merely giving instruments for students to analyze knowledge with, rather than actual knowledge or wisdom. To Henrie, such an approach produces only “clever animals” with no knowledge of their own. This is a very radical belief in this era: for example, in my personal experience with education it has been repeatedly emphasized that “spoonfeeding facts” is inferior to “teaching critical thinking.” This is similar to Schall’s essay on liberal learning, which also asserts the importance of “finding the truth.” (Another point of agreement: Henrie echos Schall in saying that a liberal education focused on the Great Books has the danger of reducing Western thought to a series of endless questions with no answers.) Certainly, for a Christian it is a crucial activity to study their own religion and the Bible in this revelational style. Even for non-believers, it is important to attempt to momentarily engage with religious ideas from the perspective of a genuine believer, so that a nuanced and humane understanding can be achieved, instead of a simplistic one that reduces them to only outdated modes of thinking. In short, theology should be studied as theology. I think Christians should do the same when studying other religions.

This section also offers many suggestions on which secondary books and commentaries to read while reading the primary sources. Overall, I think it’s a great and useful guide. If one is offended by the idea that these Western-centric ideas should be the core curriculum, they can simply read it as a guide to “Western thought,” similar to a guide on postmodern thought or early modern philosophy or anything else.

Does Science Mutilate Minds?

Now we shall return to discussing some of the issues raised in Henrie’s introduction.

Henrie’s discussion of the importance of a liberal education begins by recapping Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, in which he bemoans the shift in the goal of American higher education that occurred in the second half of the 19th century, from making “civilized men” to making “scientific men,” who are professionals trained to do only one job well. The reason for this shift was that “scientific men” would be of greater use to society as a whole. This is an idea that has been surging strongly in the last decade or so – witness the regular mocking of English, philosophy, and humanities degrees as being a waste of money. From a practical standpoint, a “scientific” economically benefits the student more, especially since so many American college students must take out large loans to pay for their education. Being mired in debt for the sake of a degree whose main benefit is intangible is an impractical step for many people. But Newman, and by extension Henrie, objects that first, the price to pay for practicality is “mutilation” of an individual’s mind. We shall discuss this more in depth later. The second objection is that specialists tend to overestimate their general intellectual capabilities outside of their own narrow discipline.

I agree with the first objection. The last few decades have seen science and scientists rise to the forefront of public recognition and respect. Many scientists write popular books which go beyond explaining their own subject area – instead, they like to pontificate on social and religious issues as well. The New Atheist movement, started by Richard Dawkins publishing The God Delusion over 10 years ago, is a prime example of this, where a few militantly atheist authors with scientific backgrounds (Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Jerry Coyne) attempt to use scientific acumen to settle theological and philosophical questions. (There are also several philosophers, usually with a focus on cognitive science, such as Daniel Dennett.) The result is predictably disappointing and embarrassing, partially because none of these were properly trained in careful philosophical argumentation, but more significantly because their perception of the superiority of their scientific background made them too arrogant to seriously consult all the previous material that had been written on these subjects for centuries. Thus we witness an empty declaration from Stephen Hawking that “philosophy is dead,” which makes as much sense as a postmodernist declaring in the 1990s that science has little objective value. In this sense, I completely agree with Henrie – scientists need to be aware of their limitations. (One should also be aware though, that the vast majority of scientists are not as hubristic as Dawkins or Hawking.)

This brings us back to Newman’s first objection. Is a purely scientific education so bad that the student’s mind can be fairly described as “multilated”? This point of view is the one which C.P. Snow mentions in his famous essay The Two Cultures – if you don’t know math or science, you can openly claim ignorance and be tolerated for it, but if you claim you don’t know Shakespeare or history, then you are viewed as an uncivilized person. (It’s interesting to note that the reverse increasingly applies today, as very few people outside of those previleged enough to attend an expensive liberal arts college or Ivy League university know anything about the humanities.) In fact, Henrie’s general outlook throughout the book seems to be not only that getting an education in one subject is inferior to getting a liberal education, but that getting an education in one scientific subject is especially bad. This is seen from him mentioning that Newman fulfilled part of his desires for a liberal education by studying classics at Oxford. It’s unclear why Henrie thinks so. I suspect that it’s because a purely scientific education does not engage much with what is traditionally construed to be civilization, and by extension, humanity, whereas the goal of liberal education is to produce “civilized men.” A scientific education does not engage at all with morality or ideas on how a society should function or be governed. They study abstract (math), inanimate (physics), or mindless (biology) objects, and the overall goal is to be able to make sense ofthe behaviors of these objects into a series of easily understandable laws. In contrast, a history major might also be focused narrowly on their subject area, but it is much more difficult to study history without studying humans and how they lived, thought, and behaved.

The flaw in this argument is that scientific thinking has progressed way beyond simple systematic cataloguing of observations of natural objects. The magnitude, sophistication, and diversity of the scientific knowledge which has been accumulated over the years is such that scientists have been forced to develop new ways of reasoning to engage with the evidence. Witness the amazing shift of mindset that occurred when special relativity became accepted as a verified theory of physics – there is no such thing as absolute space and time anymore! The increasing sophistication of experimental techniques have also led to shifts in what can be considered empirical evidence for a theory. Apart from these conceptual advances, it’s simply the case that understanding some scientific theories (such as quantum mechanics) requires one to be able to think about the physical world in sophisticated and complex mathematical terms, bridging the abstract and the real worlds. It is thus unfair to reduce scientific learning to being a form of mechanistic or robotic learning that can be accomplished without profound challenges to one’s mind. More importantly, the increasing ubiquity of technology based on these modes of thinking have made scientific knowledge increasingly crucial for all, not just scientists. Thus, a student solely exposed to science does have an incomplete education, but their minds cannot be said to be mutilated – they are simply only accustomed to using one manner of reasoning, one that humanities majors almost never use.

It is true, though, that the mind-blowing shifts of perspective and reasoning present by the sciences is rarely explicitly acknowledged even in science classes, although I believe that any serious science student eventually gets unconsciously initiated to them as they study more and more advanced topics. The unconscious part is unfortunate, and that is why I think it’s very fulfilling for scientists to take a step back and study the “big picture,” including philosophy and history of science, to understand where scientific thinking is situated in the context of history and how scientific thinking evolved in the first place. A prime example is how the initial resistance to the heliocentric ideas of Copernicus (and later Galileo) was not due to simple religious reasons, but because of the inadequacy of the evidence for heliocentrism at the time. In fact, the few astronomers who “refused to look into Galileo’s telescope” were not just being stubborned – the idea of admitting an observation through a telescope as scientific evidence was also new. However, science is rarely presented as such in regular science classes – the impression seems to be that certain ideas were just “better” from the beginning. (An entertaining popular retelling on the whole evolution of thought from geocentrism to heliocentrism is told by science fiction author Michael Flynn.)

More generally, it is also useful for everyone to go out and explore all the different areas of knowledge in order to make sense of the super-big picture, of how everything fits together. That is precisely what I am attempting to do with this ongoing project to read the Great Books and obtain a liberal education even after I’ve graduated from college. Thus, while Henrie’s sentiments might be useful for me in fulfilling the more humanities side of a liberal education, my own personal outlook encompasses way more than just that. But as few people have defended this kind of “truly integrated” form of learning, it is important to read strong, eloquent defenses of the traditional humanities-focused side of liberal learning, and Henrie’s book gladly fulfills that function.

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