Starting in the 2017-2018 academic year, as UP began a process to revitalize its liberal arts core curriculum, one of the most frequent comments I’ve heard is that the core has simply become a “checklist.” People still like the idea of the core, and people still believe in the value of the liberal arts. But some of the details about what that all means seem to have gone missing. Somewhere along the way, there seems to have been a diminishing of shared understandings around why the core curriculum characterizes a University of Portland education and why being a comprehensive university with a liberal arts core matters.
As I’ve looked back at the original vision for the core, I’ve come to think this is less a problem of the curriculum itself and more a problem of things taken for granted. The longer we’ve used the core, the more we take it as simple matter-of-fact and starve it of the vibrant discourse so central to a good liberal arts education.
This ‘core matters’ blog project is one small effort to re-engage that discourse, and to provide a resource to anyone interested in the UP core curriculum including those directly involved in the core revitalization. The goal is to use posts on the Teaching & Learning Community Blog to progressively build a compendium of brief essays about what happens (and what could happen) in UP core courses. I have started asking the chairs of departments teaching in the core the following question:
How does your core course, or how do your department’s core courses, serve UP’s liberal arts core curriculum, and a broader vision of a liberal education?
(Note that ‘liberal’ here deriving from the Latin liberalis and is associated with freedom and the functioning of free citizens – aligning also with the University of Portland motto Veritas vos Liberabit, or the ‘truth will set you free’).
The hope is that the chairs will help recruit faculty teaching in their departments’ core courses to write ~1000 word answers to this question for the benefit primarily of current and future UP faculty. The idea is that while most of us know the basic core requirements, and know the general intention of the core, we are often less clear on what happens in specific classes. As proof of concept, I’ve drafted and posted an essay for the core course I know best – the PSY 101: General Psychology course that has fulfilled a social science core requirement for at least the 15 years I’ve been teaching at UP.
Lars Larson, current chair of English and active participant in shaping how we do writing in the core, has agreed to help me shepherd more such essays – and will be posting his own ~1000 words on the English core course next week. We are encouraging other faculty to interpret the above question broadly and be creative in relating it to various disciplines. But we also hope to include some consideration of how a course (or courses) addresses UP’s specific core questions and core goals. The plan is to post these brief essays as they become available through this 2018-2019 academic year so that by the end of the year we have a relatively complete online compendium.
It is also the case that part of the intention is to articulate the broader value of the liberal arts, while also remembering that UP’s liberal arts core is only one part of a broader UP education. The 39 credits of the core constitute less than a third of the overall credit load required to graduate, and an even smaller portion of the holistic UP educational experience given the importance of residentiality, service, faith life, extracurricular activities, and other modes of formation central to a Holy Cross education. So while the liberal arts core, let alone any individual course, does not by itself need to accomplish the entire UP mission, it does provide an essential foundation for what is characteristic of a UP education.
In that vein, it may also be helpful to remember that the liberal arts have historically been distinguished (from other disciplinary endeavors such as the ‘mechanical arts’ or the ‘practical arts’) by an emphasis on the intrinsic value of knowledge and developing broad intellectual capacities such as reason, judgment, aesthetics, and analytical thinking. In his book Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Mark William Roche, former dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, argues that there are three broad ways the liberal arts matter: 1) for its intrinsic value and opportunities for “asking the great questions that give meaning to life”; 2) for cultivating intellectual virtues that are critical to success in any career path or civic engagement; and 3) for contributing to character formation and “the connection to a higher purpose.”
So how might the courses that have perhaps too often become just tick marks on a checklist actually help towards those much grander ideals? We hope to find out in this (cyber) space.