The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding in order to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line in a time of putative budget deficits. In 2009, when the university is in a truly dire financial situation, the current president’s plans to meet its needs include no such curricular initiative.1 In the late 1990s, however, then-president Hugo Sonnenschein apparently was arguing that prospective students at the margin, those who were industrious enough to choose Chicago but who wanted more time for non-academic “fun” than the traditional Chicago experience allowed for, would be persuaded to apply for admission.
There were other arguments for changing the core, too, such as the vapid “change is inevitable; the disciplines are changing; let’s change with the times,” and the more noble idea that shaking things up would inspire the weaker core courses to improve or else face the chopping block. The immediate results of the curriculum debates, however, betrayed the primary impetus for change: the curricular mission remained essentially the same, but there were fewer required courses than before, permitting an easier bachelor’s degree for students who wanted it. The results over the past ten years have been a University of Chicago undergraduate education that in significant ways has drifted downhill.
Instead of twenty-one required courses, there became fifteen: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies.2 Of the six courses that were cut, three concerned studies of a foreign language. Students could avoid college-level study of a foreign language if they could demonstrate knowledge equivalent to a year’s worth of study. Two quarters of science education were also cut. The final cut was more complicated, reflecting opposition from faculty members who were preserving their academic turf in the face of administrative pressure. Instead of seven courses comprised by three quarters (a full year) of humanities, three quarters of civilization studies, and one course in art, music, or drama, the new core requirement was six courses: at least two quarters each of humanities and civilization studies, plus one or two of the art/music/drama courses to make up the difference (see table 1). The social science requirement remained unchanged—reflecting even stronger faculty opposition to reducing requirements.
University of Chicago Curriculum Change, 1999, by Required Quarters of Study
0 (if successfully tested out of)
Science and Mathematics
2 or 3
2 or 3
1 or 2 (Humanities, Civilization, and Art/Music/Drama courses must total 6)
*The Science and Mathematics requirement is constituted in the same way as the Humanities/Civilization/Art requirement: students must take at least two quarters of natural science, two quarters of physical science, and one quarter of math, with the sixth quarter from any of the three areas.
The National Association of Scholars, among others, led the way in challenging Chicago to provide an educational rationale for these curricular choices.3 One response had already been in the works. A very detailed, historically informed rationale was published in 1999 in the form of three addresses from dean of the college John Boyer, Three Views of Continuity and Change at the University of Chicago.4 Boyer’s historical research discovered, to no surprise, that the present round of cuts was just about perfectly prefigured by the university’s best traditions. Making it possible for students to get core courses out of the way in their first two years and dividing their academic time about equally among electives, concentration courses (one’s “major,” in the current parlance), and core courses apparently were exactly where the educational ideas of the previous hundred years had led. Nobody could explain to the students, however, how the third quarters of humanities and civilization were fully interchangeable with each other or even with a music course. The message was that Chicago’s requirements in these areas were really not about core knowledge and skills so much as “distribution requirements,” a little of this and a little (or a little less) of that.
An alternative history, meanwhile, was launched by former dean of the college Donald Levine. His recent book, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America (University of Chicago Press, 2006), recounts a depth and elegance of curricular thinking that one would be hard-pressed to find in America anymore. The book shows how truly creative thinking for the twenty-first-century core curriculum might have resulted in an integrated higher education, one that not only maintained the traditional intellectual development of the Chicago experience, but also centered on a dozen powers of the educated mind.5 (I served as Levine’s research and editorial assistant for several years during the development of this book.) A curriculum for today’s human beings and citizens might involve developing the powers of taking in, processing, and sending forth the best that has been thought and expressed by individuals and civilizations around the world, becoming increasingly engaged in the Great Conversation and progressively proficient in the arts and sciences.
Such was the lost opportunity at Chicago. It puts in perspective the relatively small changes implemented ten years ago, controversial as they were. Rather than examine what was not to be, however, let us look at what has happened to the University of Chicago’s core curriculum over the past decade. Were the critics right? Has the curriculum slouched toward mediocrity?
The 1999 controversy focused mainly on the reduction of the core requirements in the humanities and studies of civilization. In both areas, only two quarters of each were required in the new curriculum. A student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one-third of one’s education in a civilization, and the college would still consider the student’s bachelor’s degree worthy of the Chicago name. This ability to avoid the full rigors of Chicago’s curriculum remains, and it is a significant problem.6 Today’s bachelor’s degree guarantees that a student has only two-thirds as much study of core humanities and two-thirds as much study of a major world civilization as the bachelor’s degree of the 1980s and 1990s.
While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, it was reported that only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences. At the time, it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands.
The situation today is not so rosy. In the autumn 2007 quarter, 1,245 students were enrolled in 68 sections of the humanities sequences.7 By the spring 2008 quarter, only 662 students were enrolled in the third quarter of a humanities sequence. This means that nearly 47 percent of students chose to study something else. Maybe they are leaving room for more electives, or maybe they are making hard choices as they try to arrange their schedules around study abroad or early graduation. (The explosion in study abroad keeps very many students geographically and academically far from the traditional Chicago curriculum as well as from their majors.)
The fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates choose to abandon a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences (see below) have evolved into “2+1” sequences on the presumption that they can only maintain about twenty-two to twenty-four weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as a humanities elective?
There is also good news, however. Chicago has kept its promise to keep class sizes down. With the help of graduate students and a small but excellent group of adjuncts, the college maintained an average class size of 18 in the 68 core humanities sections in autumn 2007. In winter 2009, the most recent quarter for which data are publicly available, there were 1,233 students in 70 core humanities sections—an impressive average of 17.6 students per class.8 Since almost all of the humanities and social science core courses depend on group discussion in a more or less Socratic style, small class sizes are particularly valuable. While other colleges are feeling (and responding to) the pressure to convert small discussion classes into large lecture courses in order to keep costs down, Chicago does not seem to be seriously contemplating such a move, for it would fundamentally change liberal education on the campus.
Another piece of good news is that the proportion of students taking “Human Being and Citizen” (HBC), Chicago’s flagship humanities sequence, has remained relatively strong. HBC students commonly read Genesis, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare or Dante, Kant, a great novel such as Moby-Dick, and more, such as modern poetry or American political documents. It is difficult to gauge the relative influence of student demand and professor supply, but the result is that there are 15 full sections of HBC in winter 2009 serving 288 students (23 percent of students taking humanities that quarter), more than any of the alternative core humanities sequences. The proportion is down from the past two years. In autumn 2007, 17 HBC sections served 337 students (27 percent); and in autumn 2006, 16 HBC sections served 321 students (25 percent). Nevertheless, HBC was still the most heavily subscribed course among the core humanities options.9
This is not to imply that HBC is the only good choice in core humanities. The “Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities” sequence and the “Greek Thought and Literature” sequence also have excellent reputations among those who value traditional readings in the humanities because of their enduring significance. The subject matter of these readings is not limited by disciplinary boundaries, and one reason courses like HBC thrive is that they are staffed by faculty from across the departments in the humanities division. Unfortunately, though, a student with an interest in philosophy can avoid studying imaginative literature by taking Philosophical Perspectives, and a student interested in the Greeks can avoid studying the following two thousand years of civilization. Nevertheless, these three sequences together are teaching about 58 percent of core humanities students in winter 2009.
What about the other 42 percent of humanities students? Traditional scholars will have a hard time accepting that all (or most) of the texts in the other sequences are worthy of study at the level of the texts in the courses above. Nevertheless, students encounter a number of great works in the other sequences, too, plus a wider variety of texts, for better or for worse.10
About two hundred students are taking Readings in World Literature (RWL). The first quarter of RWL is dedicated to accounts of “alienation” in literature from Plato through the 1980s. The second quarter involves “the problem of evil” in works by such authors as Shakespeare and Conrad. (The second-quarter syllabus seems to have changed a great deal over the years.) The third quarter treats special topics such as “Gender and Literature” or “Poetry.” Although it may be unfortunate that the sequence designers have decided ahead of time the central topic with which to examine the texts in each of the first two quarters, at least students are reading and thinking about excellent works of literature most of the time.
Another 153 students are taking “Media Aesthetics,” which employs several of the “powers” outlined in Powers of the Mind: the first quarter focuses on “seeing,” the second on “hearing,” and the third on “reading.” The sequence explicitly distances itself from its less rigorous cousin, “Media Studies,” focusing instead on great works and other works in various media. Even more than in RWL, however, the faculty in Media Aesthetics seem to have very specific ideas about the approach with which each text will be read. The courses admirably keep deep questions open for discussion. For example, one of the most interesting questions guiding the sequence is, “Do we learn new ways of seeing and hearing from inventions like drawing, painting, photography, the phonograph, cinema, and video?”
Finally, 162 students are taking “Reading Cultures: Collection, Travel, Exchange.” This is essentially a cultural studies course. The first quarter “focuses on the way both objects and stories are selected and rearranged to produce cultural identities.” The winter quarter focuses “on the literary conventions of cross-cultural encounter [and] on how individual subjects are formed and transformed through narrative.” The spring quarter works toward understanding the relation (in the modern and post-modern periods) between economic development and processes of cultural transformation. We examine literary and visual texts that celebrate and criticize modernization and urbanization. Beginning with Baudelaire’s response to Paris in his prose poems, we then concentrate on novels that address economic, social, and cultural change in the 1930s, including Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and Richard Wright’s Native Son. As the quarter concludes, students develop projects that investigate the urban fabric of Chicago itself.
works toward understanding the relation (in the modern and post-modern periods) between economic development and processes of cultural transformation. We examine literary and visual texts that celebrate and criticize modernization and urbanization. Beginning with Baudelaire’s response to Paris in his prose poems, we then concentrate on novels that address economic, social, and cultural change in the 1930s, including Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and Richard Wright’s Native Son. As the quarter concludes, students develop projects that investigate the urban fabric of Chicago itself.
If one of the goals of a core curriculum is to provide a common intellectual experience for all students on campus, this goal is almost entirely lost at Chicago, where the variety of core humanities options range from Genesis and Plato to a “project” on the “urban fabric of Chicago.” The variety of options, in itself, teaches students that there is no literary heritage to be appreciated in common by educated men and women. A student cannot count on being able to sit next to another student in the dining hall and deepen each other’s understanding of a classic text. The Reading Cultures students are getting very little, if any, of a true University of Chicago education in the humanities.11
This result might not be for the worst, however. A couple of really smart students might figure out that they are trying to answer some of the same questions even while they are reading different works. The Great Conversation depends in large measure, but not entirely, on the Great Books; yet the Great Books have much, much more to offer than other books in depth and in their integration of complex themes. What a revelation it might be if, after an hour of dinner conversation, the student who read Plato and the student who read African folk tales both came to realize that Plato is truly magnificent and that the folk tales are actually less effective at engaging the most important questions for human beings and their communities! What if the student who was taught to be something of a relativist ended up realizing the enduring significance of these questions?
The situation for Western Civilization studies might seem dire at Chicago—but try as it might, the history department cannot excise the idea of Western Civilization from this Western university.12 The curriculum controversy of the late 1990s was followed by another in 2002, when the university announced that it was ending its decades-long run of “History of Western Civilization” courses. The history department no longer thought such courses made sense. They would be replaced by two courses—“History of European Civilization” and “Ancient Mediterranean World”—and students would only have to take one of the two to fulfill the civilization requirement.13
Today, Western Civilization remains in only one over-subscribed section of 26 students; the student demand remains, but the history department’s supply has almost entirely ended. European Civilization is taught at present in 11 sections with class sizes ranging from 4 to 22. Ancient Mediterranean World has a mere 76 students taught together, lecture style, with breakout discussion sections on Fridays.
“America in Western Civilization” is also no more; the course was recently renamed “America in World Civilization,” and its syllabus, no doubt, was changed accordingly. This nomenclature change is significant. It shows that the history department continues its onslaught against the idea of a distinct Western heritage—not just at the cultural and geographic margins, where syncretic studies make sense, but through and through.
It is important to note, however, that students can get a hefty helping of Western Civilization if they choose. They can still fulfill the civilization requirement by taking “Music in Western Civilization” or study abroad in courses such as “France in Western Civilization.” Besides, there are still hundreds of individual courses that do not fulfill the Civilization requirement but focus on the history or literature of Western nations and Western cultural figures. Whether they acknowledge it or not, many or most of the works and topics in these courses are recognizably Western.
It is also important to remember, as Powers of the Mind makes clear, that one of Chicago’s numerous strengths going back several decades has been its many world-class scholars in non-Western civilizations. This strength has resulted in excellent courses in these civilizations (African, Near Eastern, and South Asian, for example) that also fulfill Chicago’s civilization requirement.
Another distressing development in this realm is an upstart sequence that is not about a major world civilization at all. Called “Colonizations,” it approaches the concept of civilization from an emphasis on cross-cultural/societal connection and exchange. We explore the dynamics of conquest, slavery, colonialism, and their reciprocal relationships with concepts such as resistance, freedom, and independence, with an eye toward understanding their interlocking role in the making of the modern world. Themes of slavery, colonization, and the making of the Atlantic world are covered in the first quarter. Modern European and Japanese colonialism in Asia and the Pacific is the theme of the second quarter. The third quarter considers the processes and consequences of decolonization both in the newly independent nations and the former colonial powers.14
approaches the concept of civilization from an emphasis on cross-cultural/societal connection and exchange. We explore the dynamics of conquest, slavery, colonialism, and their reciprocal relationships with concepts such as resistance, freedom, and independence, with an eye toward understanding their interlocking role in the making of the modern world. Themes of slavery, colonization, and the making of the Atlantic world are covered in the first quarter. Modern European and Japanese colonialism in Asia and the Pacific is the theme of the second quarter. The third quarter considers the processes and consequences of decolonization both in the newly independent nations and the former colonial powers.14
The subject matter of this sequence does not actually meet the standard given for civilization courses in the college catalog, which states, “Each sequence provides an in-depth examination of the development and accomplishments of one of the world’s great civilizations through direct encounters with some of its most significant documents and monuments.” The course is not interfering with the education of many students, however, having just five under-subscribed sections this year.
Core Social Sciences
Although the core requirement in social science did not change in 1999, students are still not getting much of a common intellectual experience through this requirement. In 1999, Chicago undergraduates could choose among six three-quarter sequences to meet this requirement: “Wealth, Power, and Virtue”; “Power, Identity, and Resistance”; “Self, Culture, and Society”; “Democracy and Social Science”; “Mind”; and “Classics of Social and Political Thought” (CSPT). As these courses demonstrate, one of Chicago’s better traditions is to use the names of courses to advertise the tackling of Big Questions or Big Problems.
In 2008–2009, students have only five choices, which does limit the fragmentation somewhat. Unfortunately, one of the best sequences has disappeared: one year the college simply let “Wealth, Power, and Virtue” disappear without a professor to chair the sequence. Also, “Democracy and Social Science” is no more, while “Social Science Inquiry” is new.
Parallel to HBC in the humanities, CSPT has long been the flagship social science course at Chicago. CSPT asks, “What is justice? What makes a good society? This sequence examines such problems as the conflicts between individual interest and common good; between morality, religion, and politics; and between liberty and equality.” CSPT students read Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Aquinas, and Machiavelli in the first quarter; Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in the second; and Smith, Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber in the spring. Occasionally CSPT and HBC are taught in “linked” sections; the same students take both sequences freshman year. This is the University of Chicago core at its best. CSPT is going strong with thirteen sections this year, but it is far short of the best-subscribed course.
Again, similar to core humanities, the good options in core social sciences are not limited to CSPT. The other options include a wider variety of texts, for better or for worse.15 The first two quarters of “Power, Identity, and Resistance” (nineteen sections this year) provide “classic works in modern political economy and its critique by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim” and then “the classical liberal emphasis on individuals and individualism” and its critique, with readings by such writers as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, and Mill. The third quarter brings these topics through the twentieth century with writers as diverse as Lenin, Trotsky, Hayek, Polanyi, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.
“Self, Culture, and Society” (twenty-six sections) also starts with “the classic social theories of Smith, Marx, and Weber” in the first quarter. NAS readers will know what this sequence is up to, however, when they read that the second quarter turns to “Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, Sahlins, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno, and other anthropologists and cultural theorists.” The spring term extends the cultural critique by engaging issues of “gender, sexuality, and ethnic identity.”
“Mind” (nine sections) takes a different approach to the social sciences requirement, taking an empirical, scientific approach to understanding the functions of the mind. Drawing on psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and a number of other social as well as biological sciences, the course examines how the mind operates at multiple levels of analysis (e.g., biological, psychological, societal) and across a variety of time scales (e.g., exploring processes that unfold over the course of milliseconds as well as those that unfold over millennia).
an empirical, scientific approach to understanding the functions of the mind. Drawing on psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and a number of other social as well as biological sciences, the course examines how the mind operates at multiple levels of analysis (e.g., biological, psychological, societal) and across a variety of time scales (e.g., exploring processes that unfold over the course of milliseconds as well as those that unfold over millennia).
These are interesting studies indeed, but it is hard to see much of the Great Conversation here. “Social Science Inquiry” (four sections), still more generally, examines social science epistemologies and research methods.
As in the humanities core, the social sciences core manages to offer very little in the way of a common education in the social sciences. Most students are not going to escape encounters with Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim. But the vast scope of the social sciences, the catalog argues by way of quoting Robert Redfield, makes it all but impossible to do more than try to give a taste of “the scientific spirit as applied to social problems and the capacity to address oneself in that spirit to such a problem.” Unfortunately, students outside of CSPT are unlikely to perceive that there are enduring, substantial “social” questions about which an educated person ought to be able to share some wisdom.
Given all the debate over the quality of Chicago’s curriculum in the humanities and social sciences, it might be easy to forget that all the while, scientists and mathematicians have been teaching high-quality core courses in the natural and mathematical sciences. Some courses and sequences have come and gone or been adapted to the latest in scientific knowledge, some courses are better (and better taught) than others, and courses for future scientists are significantly harder than those for non-scientists who just need to fulfill requirements. Unfortunately, the idea of an integrated science curriculum as part of a liberal education has been withering away, and almost no such courses are left.16
Students must take six core courses in the sciences: at least two each in the physical and biological sciences, and at least one in the mathematical sciences. The physical and biological science sequences run for two or three quarters, and the fields are integrated in a four-quarter option (“Evolution of the Natural World”) with which a student can fulfill both requirements. The mathematics requirement can be met with Advanced Placement credit or with one or two quarters of computer science or statistics, besides a mathematics course such as calculus.
To learn some elegant ways of engaging students in the sciences as part of a liberal education, one might never do better than Joseph J. Schwab’s writings. Schwab, both a product and an agent of many of the University of Chicago’s best educational traditions—as Levine describes at length in Powers of the Mind—appreciated the diversity of approaches to knowledge that non-scientists simply call “the scientific method.” Schwab’s classic use of “thought questions” and primary texts in the sciences marked a high point for the science curriculum at Chicago. That tradition remains alive but hobbled in the science curriculum today.17 Science majors, moreover, forgo much or all of the liberal education side of the sciences because the early courses they take in their discipline fulfill the core requirement.
During Levine’s tenure as college dean the faculty launched Project 1984, which featured eleven task forces that thoroughly reviewed the college curriculum. Rare is the college that can sustain a two-day conference on teaching the natural sciences as part of a liberal education, but Chicago did it.18 The results of the curricular deliberations included the creation of three different two-year sequences integrating the sciences.
These integrated sequences have been withering away. In 1999, “Form and Function in the Natural World” and “Evolution of the Natural World” were already five-quarter sequences, while “Environmental Sciences” still required six quarters. In 2000, the first two sequences were reduced to four quarters. In 2001, the “Form and Function” course disappeared. In 2004, “Environmental Sciences” became less integrated, offering more than one option for two of the courses in the “sequence.” The following year the entire sequence disappeared, leaving only “Evolution of the Natural World” in four quarters for students who are not majoring in the sciences.
“Evolution of the Natural World” involves planetary systems and geology in the first quarter. Its second quarter, “Evolution of the Universe,” “is designed to encourage a sense of awe, appreciation, and understanding of the topics investigated in modern astrophysics, such as the origin of the universe, the formation and evolution of the sun and the Earth, the nature of space and time, and the search for other planets and life in the universe.” The final two quarters involve biological evolution and environmental ecology.
Non-majors also can fulfill their core science requirements by taking other courses in the natural and physical sciences. In the physical sciences, for instance, eight different two-quarter sequences meet the physical sciences core requirement, and there are three “elective” courses that paradoxically count for the “sixth quarter” of core credit in the sciences (see table 1). Here, too, the college is not offering students much or any idea of the scientific knowledge and proficiencies that all educated persons should have.19
Another result of Project 1984 was the creation of well-integrated, interdisciplinary, one-year sequences in mathematical sciences—distinguished from mathematics alone. In 1995, for instance, “Mathematical Sciences 120-121-122” integrated concepts and methods from mathematics, computer science, and statistics, emphasizing interdisciplinary aspects of these subjects. Topics covered in past years have included analysis of literary style, problems of disputed authorship, processes affecting the course of epidemics, logical foundations of arithmetic, object-oriented computer programming, analysis of quantitative arguments, risk assessment, intelligence testing, cryptography, computational approaches to the calculus, and decipherment of ancient languages. When necessary, a laboratory equipped with personal computers is provided, allowing students to investigate various problems drawn from the humanities and social sciences.
concepts and methods from mathematics, computer science, and statistics, emphasizing interdisciplinary aspects of these subjects. Topics covered in past years have included analysis of literary style, problems of disputed authorship, processes affecting the course of epidemics, logical foundations of arithmetic, object-oriented computer programming, analysis of quantitative arguments, risk assessment, intelligence testing, cryptography, computational approaches to the calculus, and decipherment of ancient languages. When necessary, a laboratory equipped with personal computers is provided, allowing students to investigate various problems drawn from the humanities and social sciences.
In 1998, however, this sequence became two quarters and decidedly less interdisciplinary: “These courses introduce concepts and methods from mathematics, computer science, and statistics. Topics covered in past years have included object-oriented computer programming, analysis of quantitative arguments, number theory, cryptography, and computational approaches to calculus.” In 1999 the sequence disappeared, along with the separate designation “mathematical sciences,” from the catalog. Since then, students have had no choice but to take courses in computer science, mathematics, “or” statistics.
What’s Next for Chicago’s Core Curriculum?
Levine’s Powers of the Mind reminds us just how much of an opportunity was lost when the University of Chicago’s curriculum review, ten years ago, resulted in significant cuts to the curriculum but virtually nothing in the way of creative thinking. The present analysis shows the additional erosion of the core since then. Anyone who reads old issues of the Journal of General Education and the Journal of Liberal Education will realize just how much high-quality curricular thought still needs to be recovered by the present generation of college teachers.
One way to tell Chicago’s story is to speak of recovery after missed opportunities. Chicago never became the Great Books college Robert Maynard Hutchins sought in 1936—although one result was the unprecedented capstone course called “Observation, Interpretation, and Integration”—later called “Organization, Methods, and Principles of the Sciences.” This missed opportunity may well have forced the college to remain creative as it shaped the curriculum around things other than books. When dean of the college Wayne Booth proposed an integrated four-year plan—Liberal Arts I, II, III, and IV—in 1964, Chicago missed this opportunity, too, staying on the safe side. Liberal Arts I survived, however.20 Project 1984 left some wonderful curricular thinking on the table, but the really tepid thinking in 1998 prompted Levine to recover and rework it in Powers of the Mind.
Powers of the Mind is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the University of Chicago undergraduate curriculum got to where it is today. It is also essential reading for anyone ready to make a real attempt to get liberal education on its feet again. Levine takes apart the traditional liberal arts—the seven of the trivium and quadrivium—and reassembles them, updated for the twenty-first century, into eight kinds of complementary powers. The first four are powers of “prehension”: audiovisual powers, kinesthetic powers, powers of comprehending verbal texts, and powers of understanding worlds. The second four are powers of expression and agency: of creating a self, composing statements and resolving problems, integrating knowledge, and sharing meanings with others.
If anyone is able to offer a thoughtful new paradigm for liberal arts education, or at least to provide a starting point for an informed articulation of an education in arts and disciplines, it is Levine. I do not mean throwing bones to interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity or merely overcoming “distribution requirements” with Great Books or insisting on any particular style of traditional “Socratic” or modern “cooperative” pedagogy. I mean an alternative built out of the educational thinking, yes, of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but also of Hutchins, Dewey, Schwab, Booth, Richard McKeon, and many other University of Chicago luminaries who worked very hard to develop effective ways to educate human beings and citizens.
Meanwhile, as Chicago’s relatively new Center for Teaching and Learning has pointed out, generations of research in education, neurobiology, and psychology have discovered much about how people learn. It will be a monumental task for the next group of Chicago’s education reformers to assemble these recoveries and discoveries, present them to a university faculty more and more specialized and less and less cognizant of the value of general education and liberal education, and persuade faculty members to change what they do in order to develop the powers of students’ minds in ways that enrich their humanity and serve the need for educated citizens.
Tinkering with the existing system will get the reformers nowhere, for the existing system does not provide a common background for all students, does not give any sense of the knowledge an educated adult should have, does not provide an integrated engagement with the development of our civilization, does not provide any path for gradually increasing one’s skills and powers, and in only limited examples provides an education unbound by the academic disciplines. General education can no longer be found at Chicago, and institutionally there is much less liberal education than Chicago’s reputation might suggest.
Chicago still has a chance to recover from the missed opportunities of the past decade. Over the next five to ten years, I hope that college deans will provide strong incentives for faculty members to get up to speed so that when the next chance comes, they will be ready. In the meantime, the core is likely to keep withering away. We are hardly one generation away from the time when Chicago’s best traditions will be remembered only in books and by few living minds.