The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


September 6, 2005

Amidst the continuing stories of tragedy and survival emanating from the Gulf Coast, this article in this morning’s Washington Post caught my eye: Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, has turned the higher education clock back by requiring all freshmen to take a required philosophy and literature course that covers what we might think of as the Usual Suspects in the Western Canon: the book of Genesis, Plato, Descartes, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and the like.

I think that this is a good move, and I wish that more colleges and universities would adopt requirements like this. I say this not because I am any great believer in the integrity of the Western Canon — especially since the best historical research shows us that the precise contours of what counts as a “canonical” work varies widely over time, sometimes fluctuating wildly from decade to decade. Nor am I convinced of the “enduring value” or “timeless wisdom” contained in any of the works that one commonly finds on lists for courses like this; I’m particularly skeptical that Plato or Aristotle have much of substance to teach us, given the differences between their worlds/ways of life and ours.

Instead, I’m in support of this kind of a required course for a few different reasons. The first is basically autobiographical: I taught Contemporary Civilization as part of Columbia University’s Core Program for two years, and it was if not the absolute best course I have ever taught, it certainly comes very close to the top of the list. CC met twice a week, two hours per session, for an entire year, and we read a series of complex and challenging works running up and down and sometimes outside of the traditional list of dead white guys. And that stuff is fun to teach, so much fun that my “Masterworks of International Relations” syllabus looks in no small way like my old CC syllabus. Spend a week on the mechanics of voting at the UN or spend a week reading and discussing Kant’s proposal for a perpetual peace? Kant wins, hands-down.

[Full disclosure: I interviewed at Ursinus six years ago, and at that time some of the faculty were just beginning to put a new course together. One of the things I liked the most about the place was that, in fact, they were heading in that direction and that I’d be able to teach in their new program, and basically keep teaching CC…but I didn’t get that job, and the rest is history.]

Second, there’s the historical dimension. The “Western Civ” course played certain specialized functions in its heyday (roughly 1920-1965, give or take), and the disappearance of that course as a required element of college and university education has made it harder to fulfill those functions. I’ll highlight two functions: providing a common vocabulary, and socializing students into a multi-generational conversation. The “Western Civ” course fulfilled these functions more or less by design: starting as the “War Issues” course at Columbia during the First World War, transmuting into the “Peace Issues” course afterwards and then spreading throughout American higher education with more of an emphasis on a set of classical primary-source readings, the basic point remained pretty much the same — to bring students into dialogue with the stuff that, for better or for worse (probably both), formed the intellectual foundation of the world in which they lived. Like it or not, we live in a world that has been produced by people who read and discussed and thought in terms promulgated by a lot of white European guys, and if one wants to understand that world one has to read their writings. American politics is basically incomprehensible without Locke; debates about evolution are incomprehensible without Descartes and Darwin; discussions of religion in public life effectively require familiarity with Mill, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and so on.

Of course, people carry on conversations and debates in ignorance of this heritage all the time. The result, whether one agrees with it or not, is — I’d submit — thinner, poorer, and uglier. And the absence of a set of common philosophical and literary references makes it harder to articulate a robust conception of American identity; if everybody has their own heroes and their own gods, what becomes of the whole?

Now, I am in no way advocating that we only read “the classics” or that we uncritically accept the ideas that may be found in any such set of readings. But I am suggesting that it’s important that we know where we came from, and that the critical conversations that we have be reliably able to depart from a common set of themes, tropes, commonplaces, images, and so forth. Struggling about the precise meaning of that common core is what a robust political and social life ought to be about — and we can’t have that unless we first have the basic set of stuff to argue about.

Third, although I don’t think that we should be designing required readings because of any “timeless wisdom” that they supposedly contain, I do think that there’s something to be said for thinking through issues in the company of people like Hobbes and Thucydides and Kierkegaard and Freud. It’s not that they “got it right,” but instead that they spent a lot of time working through to some sort of a stance on some of those perennial issues that keep coming up again and again throughout the course of recorded human history. [There may be a causal loop at play here, of course: perhaps part of the reason that those issues keep surfacing is that people have read certain works and engaged with them in trying to order their experiences, and then their records of those experiences become part of the canon, which people read subsequently, etc.…] I can think of no better way to wrestle with some thorny issue than by discussing it, either with live persons or with dead ones whom you only know through books — but you can’t use the book route unless you have been exposed to the books, and exposed to them in their proper historical and intellectual context. Which is what a required college course on the Columbia/Ursinus model provides.

For example: Augustine’s central problem in his magisterial Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans is the question of how God could have permitted Rome to fall — how such a magnificent city’s ruin at the hands of barbarians could be squared with the notion of an infinitely good, just, and compassionate supreme ruler of the universe. Contemporary relevance, anyone? Augustine is the perfect source for trying to work through the theological or cosmic meaning of a disaster, to try to put it all into some kind of context — even if one whole-heartedly rejects Augustine’s conclusions. The point is that engaging what he is doing in the text, confronting his arguments and responding to his logic, helps to develop the habit of mind that can come to some kind of resolution about big incomprehensible things.

Enduring value? In that sense, you betcha. Worth the possible grumbling of freshmen seeking more choice and more control over their educations from the get-go? I think so. And, if these weren’t enough, think also of the benefits for higher-level college courses, when one can presume a familiarity with certain works and authors and themes, the better to appreciate the critiques of them that are advanced by more contemporary authors…

Yes, I’m a CC junkie. And I think that you should be, too.

[cross-posted on my blog]

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.