The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why every college should have a genuine core curriculum

November 3, 2005

Both Patrick Jackson and I taught in Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization program (CC) during our stint in graduate school. Contemporary Civilization is the capstone (or, at least, we viewed it that way) in Columbia’s core curriculum; it is a classic “Western Civilization” course in the “Plato to NATO” idiom. When we taught it, students read a lot of dead white guys, a few dead white women, a few dead non-whites, and, at our discretion, some people who are actually still alive.

I hesitate to speak for Patrick, but I know I will go to the mat to defend “Contemporary Civilization” and other western-canon type requirements – which is one of those opinions I hold that puts me in strange (and less strange) company.

I suspect Patrick would as well. This isn’t because we’re followers of Harold Bloom or the late Allan Bloom. Indeed, the latter’s The Closing of the American Mind is utter claptrap, in my humble opinion.

Rather, western-canon courses are a good idea because they make this possible.

Aristotle: Shut up, motherf*cker, how can you understand my perfect city when I haven’t explained it yet?

Socrates: No, dickhead, not that, I understand what you were saying before, about perfection. It’s all about forms.

Aristotle: Forms?

Socrates: Yeah, motherf*cker, forms. Like, something don’t have to physically exist for it to be perfect; it exists as the perfect ideal, the perfect form, beyond mortal comprehension.

Alcibiades: Socrates, you’re supposed to pour your libations on the ground, not drink them till you’re talking like a crazy Bacchae bitch.

Socrates: Normally, I’d be pouring libations with your spinal fluid right now, but since I’m feeling at peace with the universe I’ll try to enlighten your sorry ass instead. Imagine there’s this dark, underground cave…..

After reading the whole thing, I must say I wasn’t at all shocked to discover its origins. After all, if you can’t expect most of your fellow students to know Plato, there’s little point in putting this kind of show on. Which gets to the larger issues of the importance of cannon-style courses: they provide a common base of knowledge among the students, a common process of socialization into the life of the mind, and an opportunity for students to wrestle with ideas that remain relevant today.

I may mount a more spirited, and comprehensive, defense of “Western Civilization” courses in the future. It might be interesting, since I don’t idealize the “canon” or think that “Western Civilization” is anything other than a recent invention.

Or maybe Patrick will do it for me, since he’s actually written a book that deals with the latter issue.

I will say this, though: teaching CC gives one license to assign some otherwise insane syllabi. Here is the reading list for my second-semester CC class in 2001:

Required Readings and Texts

The following texts are available at either the Columbia Bookstore or Labyrinth Books, except those marked with a ‘†’ which are available only at Labyrinth—but may always be ordered on-line from your preferred source. Readings marked with a ‘¥’ will be made available by me for copying.

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Hackett)
Darwin, Darwin: Norton Critical Edition (Norton)
Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (Dover)
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (Norton)
Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Hackett)
Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Hackett)
Rossiter, ed. The Federalist Papers (Mentor)
Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings (Hackett)
Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Hackett)
Wollstonecraft, The Vindications (Broadview)

†Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Vintage)
†Foucault, Discipline and Punish (Vintage)
†Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple (Princeton)
†Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Hackett)
†Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton)
†Mill, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government (Everyman)
†Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Perennial Library)
†Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton)
†Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo (Vintage)

¥Rossi, ed. “Adams Letters.”
¥Weber, “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy”
¥Weber, “Science as a Vocation”

And of course, The Contemporary Civilization Reader.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.