Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Old and New Curriculum

The University of Chicago recently decided to abolish its long-loved and -mocked requirement that all students take a course of physical education to graduate. A friend of mine denounced the decision forcefully in a blog post that I approve of wholeheartedly. But to design a good education for young citizens takes more than reactionary complaining. In that spirit, I submit the following to a candid world:

The Core Founded on Words:
A Proposal for the University of Chicago’s Curriculum.

This two-year curriculum is not intended to cover everything worth reading or knowing. It leaves out the entire Eastern philosophical tradition, and leaves the history and literature of entire continents untouched. Even the Western tradition, which is the focus of the curriculum, gets a cursory treatment. Nevertheless, I chose the books that I did because they all make claims to truth that have been deeply influential in our politics and our culture. If you want to read Allen Ginsburg, Mencius, and the Kalevala, do it on your own time or go to Yale.


Application Essay Question (choose one): 1. What is human happiness?  2. Defend Prohibition, eugenics, or the Defense of Marriage Act.

Requirement for the summer before matriculation: Read Plato’s Symposium and the King James Bible.


Three quarters: two inorganic, one organic.

Natural History
One quarter. Classification of plants and animals, biomes, geology, etc. A little evolutionary theory.

English & American Literature
Quarter I: The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost in their entirety.
Quarter II: Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and Song of Hiawatha.
Quarter III: Any Jane Austen novel, David Copperfield, The Golden Bowl.
Quarter IV: A survey of English poetry, from the Middle-English period up to, but not including, T.S. Eliot. A strong emphasis throughout on memorization. (This quarter does not need to be taken in sequence.)

Political Philosophy
Three quarters. [The University of Chicago’s Classics of Social & Political Thought curriculum is excellent as it is. But add the Apology, Crito, Filmer’s De Patriarcha, and Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Read more Marx and Rousseau. Remove W.E.B. DuBois, Nietzsche, and Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.]

Latin or Greek
Three quarters. Wheelock’s Latin or An Intensive Course in Greek.

European Literature
Quarter I: The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid.
Quarter II: Inferno, Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust.
Quarter III: Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and Madame Bovary.

Quarter I: Calculus.
Quarter II: Statistics.

Quarter I: Medieval European History: 476–1492.
Quarters II & III: Modern European History, 1799–1914.

Note: Emphasis split between primary sources (1/3) and secondary literature (2/3). Secondary sources are split between classic accounts and the latest scholarship. Primary sources to be drawn from the University of Chicago’s Readings in Western Civilization.

Quarter I: The Nicomachean Ethics. St. Augustine’s Confessions and On Grace and Free Will. Descartes. Spinoza. Hume.
Quarter II: Genealogy of Morals, Fear and Trembling, selections from Kant. Tolstoy’s Confession.

Physical Education
Two full years. Choose two from wrestling, swimming and boxing.

Other Requirements for Graduation
Mastery of a modern language.
Mastery of freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke & butterfly.

Notes on the requirements:

  • All entering students read the Symposium in order to learn that a “passion for learning” is an almost erotic desire for knowledge, not a trite platitude. The Bible is there for obvious reasons: a huge amount of the Western tradition is founded on its worldview and its literature. And Biblical Christianity is subtler, stranger, and more compelling than the image that most liberal-arts students have in their minds.
  • This is intended to represent the first two years of an undergraduate's education before he begins his major. It can also serve as a two-year program at a community college.
  • Every student has to take every course listed here. No skiving off from a real education to indulge a passion for “media aesthetics.”
  • There is no particular reason for choosing the specific periods in the history courses. In addition to giving students a glimpse of why our society is the way it is, the history courses are case studies in how modern scholarship can overturn classical accounts of history while also being heavily influenced by those very accounts.
  • Natural History and Chemistry are intended to replace the classes like “Global Warming” and “Metabolism and Exercise” that currently pass for scientific education at Chicago.
  • The University of Chicago’s Classics curriculum is one of the only defensible parts of the Common Core as it currently stands. It stays mostly intact, but with the modifications that I noted. I added Dr. King because he responds directly to a major problem that Socrates raises in the Crito, and I added Filmer because Locke and Hobbes are incomprehensible without understanding what they’re arguing against.
  • The physical-education courses are not intended to put students into mental balance or relieve them of stress but to make them strong, healthy, and skilled.

Finally, if you accuse me of being a Eurocentric, let me describe my morning routine.
  • 6:57: My alarm rings. Out the door by 7:15.
  • 7:30: After ritually washing my hands, I put on a white mantle with a knotted thread hanging off each corner. Then I use long leather cords to strap one black cube to my right arm and one to my forehead, each of which contains a curled-up roll of parchment inscribed with descriptions of animal sacrifice. Then for half an hour, I chant in an undertone in an ancient Near-Eastern Language.
  • 8:00: Breakfast.

If you make the much more reasonable accusation of my curriculum’s being Eurocentrist, I answer: Yes. It is.