Philosophy and the core curriculum

I have been involved with the question of philosophy and core reform at 5 different institutions, Benedictine College, The College of St Francis, St Mary’s College (Orchard Lake) of Ave Maria University, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and the University of St Thomas. In most cases, philosophy is on the defensive, and following the downward arc from the days of old when as a matter of course the Catholic institutions required 18-32 hours of philosophy. They knew something back in the old days. First, what was of vital importance in the curriculum (philosophy and theology) and second, that the formation of a habitus or acquisition of the scientia of philosophy and theology took at least 6 courses and probably more.

I think that the reduction of the core and the reduction of philosophy to three or less courses calls for a new approach to understanding philosophy (and theology’s) role in the core. The full and solid development of the habit of philosophy is not feasible with a three course sequence; it is possible for those who would minor in it.

Here are some chief points to bear in mind:

First, what now counts most of all is the influence of the teacher upon the student. Peter Kreeft or Ralph McInerny could be teaching Kierkegaard or Aquinas – the love of wisdom shines through and the logic of things goes to work upon the student as they work through philosophical problems with their mentor. Thus the first order of business needs to be – find the right professors to teach undergraduates and give them the tools they need to reach out to these students and challenge their assumptions and begin to build up some solid modes of thinking in them. As professionals and members of the guild (a Thomist guild in our case) they should decide what tools they need. Newman talks about personal influence; it is all important. A beautiful curriculum with the wrong professors – still a disaster; a poor curriculum with the right professors – still superb.

Second, our greatest challenge in teaching is to confront and to purge the sophistry of the day. The students imbibe it with their formula milk as infants, and it is force fed them throughout their sojourn through this liberal consumer society. Self is king; consumers rule; the dictatorship of relativism. Like those vulnerable birds caught in an oil spill, the wings of thought are mired in a tarry mess and each must be bathed to recover movement and action. The propaedeutic is now of paramount concern.

Third, the imagination is threadbare and the mind is worn down by the Tv, movies, Ipods, and YouTube. The imagination needs feeding; concrete examples, witnesses, images, narratives – all these are a necessary basis to enable abstract thinking today.

Fourth, a core set of home truths must needs be established and reiterated. My list would include

  • Faith and reason are complementary
  • The human person possesses spiritual powers of intellect and will, and special dignity being neither beast nor god.
  • Truth is real and the sciences and disciplines approach the fullness of truth through various methods
  • God is ever present as the creator and redeemer of the world, known by reason and disclosed in revelation
  • Morality, as natural and divine law, is objective
  • The right to life and religious freedom are the most fundamental principles of a just society
  • The great task in world is to develop a culture of life, i.e., a civilization of love

For these home truths faculty must work with students to establish the necessary images and narratives, to identify and to refute the confused sophistry that arises from the media and academia (including their other classes and professors), to clarify the terms and issues in each case, and to construct solid arguments for each issue.

Fifth, attract as many students as possible to minor, double major, and major in philosophy (and other disciplines in the humanities)

All curriculum plans are secondary to these concerns; we fiddle while Rome burns if we devote ourselves to intricate arguments about the core and if we fail to address the issues of who is teaching, what distortions are ruling the minds of the young, how we can build up an enriched imagination, what core truths do we hammer home, whatever the course, and how can we get more students to major and minor in philosophy..

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