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Literary courses improve academia

I AM GOING to take this opportunity to defend the currently unfashionable view that core courses, consisting of definite lists of required texts, should be mandatory for all University undergraduates. Having been at the University for 17 years, I have been surprised that an institution that is so traditional in many ways offers relatively little traditional education in the great texts of Western civilization.

The model for the core courses I have in mind is practiced at Columbia College, where I was an undergraduate. At Columbia, all undergraduates are required to take two two-semester sequences: Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. The first covers great literary works: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as well as Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Kafka. The latter consists of great works in political and social thought, by thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. For undergraduates, the reading often is onerous, especially if the two courses are taken simultaneously. But all students receive serious exposure to much of the best our culture has to offer.

The reading of common texts promotes genuine intellectual community. A core humanities requirement ensures that students can talk about Aristophanes, Dante or Hegel with almost anyone. Uninformed, I did not choose Columbia for its core curriculum. But generations of similarly uninformed undergraduates have learned much from core curriculums.

Given that humanities and civilization core courses would be valuable, a case still has to be made that core curricula in those subjects -- rather than in others -- should be required.

A number of arguments can be made. An important consideration is, obviously, the sheer quality of the works. Students benefit immeasurably from close contact with great minds. But again, faculty members in other areas could argue that students would benefit similarly from close contact with their fields. The case for a humanities course is more difficult than for a contemporary civilizations course. Argument for a required humanities sequence depends on controversial claims concerning aesthetic appreciation. It also is difficult to argue for confining attention to works of Western literature.

A powerful case can be made for a course on social and political texts, however. Being an educated person requires knowing at least something about a list of figures, e.g., Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. In Plato's "Apology of Socrates, Socrates proclaims the importance of thinking about fundamental moral questions, that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Whether or not we go this far, the unexamined life is unworthy of a citizen of a democratic polity.

The concept of government by the consent of the governed is fundamental to this country's political system. Political philosophers have wrestled with what exactly this entails at least since the time of Locke. At minimum, this requires that citizens understand and can assess the workings of their government, which in turn requires appreciation of the moral principles that government embodies.

The liberal tradition dictates that political power be justified to those required to accept it. For citizens to be governed according to principles they understand requires basic knowledge of the great texts, which are the loci classici for the language of American political discourse. Wittingly or not, politicians and citizens alike daily speak the language of Locke and Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill and Marx. As John Neville Figgis says of other, now obscure political philosophers, "these men whose very names are only an inquiry for the curious are bone to our bone."

In spite of their clear relevance for political life, I often have heard it argued that the canon -- works by dead European white men -- shuts off discussion of alternative perspectives. But this objection is misplaced. It often is a great surprise for those exposed to the canon for the first time to see how fundamentally these dead European white men disagree.

The great theorists in our tradition regularly argue with and denounce one another. Their products include not only the basic (canonical) works of the liberal tradition but liberalism's most powerful critics, e.g., Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. As my graduate school teacher once said, one reason to read Plato is because of how illiberal he was.

In Machiavelli we find the savagely subversive thesis that political values should not be tainted by personal morality; in Nietzsche we have a ferocious and ferociously eloquent assault on our central values.

The canon is doubly valuable. Only by reading the great theorists can we understand the reasoning behind our political principles. But for those who view this as indoctrination, the great texts also provide the antidote. In "On Liberty," perhaps the most eloquent argument for freedom of thought and discussion in our tradition, Mill says: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." But unless students are systematically exposed to the great arguments that constitute the prevailing side of the case, they will not know even that.

(George Klosko is a professor of government and foreign affairs.)



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