The last day of January, three hours out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and I am driving across a snowy Indiana landscape under a darkening sky to fulfill a speaking assignment. Having written a book titled The Idea of a Catholic University, I have given several talks sponsored by the Commonweal Speakers Program at Catholic colleges and universities. Tonight’s talk, on the relation of Catholicism to higher education, is at St. Joseph’s College in Renssalaer, Indiana.

Driving instructions: “Off Interstate 65 onto Indiana 114; turn on Main St.; the college gate is just opposite the Walmart.” It is 5 p.m. I pass a line of barren trees and spot the looming towers of a large church to the left and a scattering of academic buildings to the right. This is St. Joseph’s, founded in 1889 by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Today the college has a thousand students and a student-faculty ratio of fifteen to one. Sixty-eight percent of students live on its 180-acre campus; 47 percent are Catholics.

Whether or not anyone learned anything from my talk that evening, I learned a great deal at St. Joseph’s about actually doing Catholic higher education. It is all well and good to write a book about the idea of Catholic higher education; it is quite a different thing to see it accomplished on the ground. It turns out that St. Joseph’s is not only opposite the Walmart geographically, it is opposite the regnant Walmart philosophy of higher education: college as a supermarket of courses for consumers. St. Joseph’s actually has a coherent, comprehensive idea about what constitutes higher education, and it has made it real in an effective—and Catholic—core curriculum.

Consumerism says, “If you want to study x, we’re selling it!” A core curriculum says, “This is what you need to study to be truly educated.” A core presumably identifies what is “higher” in higher education. Traditionally, educators assumed there was a hierarchy of studies: some courses were either intellectually or morally more important—or both. The traditional Jesuit theory of higher education, the ratio studiorum, offered a progression of courses that led eventually to the overarching disciplines of philosophy and theology. Ninteenth-century Protestant colleges dedicated to classical Greek and Latin culminated in a course on ethics taught by the college president. Both the ratio studiorum and the study of ancient texts as a door to ethical instruction withered during the latter half of the nineteenth century as a result of the introduction of multiple electives into the fixed classical curriculum. Much good has been accomplished by expanding the restrictive curricula of the past, but it is no surprise that with so many equivalently valued disciplines now on the field, arriving at a core for the curriculum has seemed nearly impossible.

Battles over the core have become commonplace, with the usual solution being to set up “distribution requirements.” Each of the major disciplinary contenders is given a piece of the action. A common model requires that students take two courses in each of three divisions—the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. These distribution requirements create the illusion of a core, but the modes and methods of study under such broad categories are so disparate that one wonders if anything fundamental has been achieved. Am I doing the humanities whether I analyze Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Milton’s prosody? And the sciences are no better. Astronomy is highly theoretical, biology highly observational. The social sciences in turn seem consumed with quarrels about proper methodology: Which science should be required? Does history belong in social science or the humanities?

The old ratio studiorum not only ranged through various disciplines; it also sought to locate the disciplines in an architectonic structure. Multiple electives and vague distribution requirements may maximize choice for the student-consumer, but the real question for education is whether the role of choice itself needs to be examined. For what constitutes a meaningful choice? The value we place on choice presumes a hierarchy of values, values that are intellectually foundational or morally superior. A true core assumes that the student-consumer needs to develop the ability to make meaningful choices; this ability is the goal of education, not its starting point.

St. Joseph’s has a rigorous, mandatory core of common courses for all undergraduates. So dedicated is the institution to this idea that it has a lovely new facility, the Core Building, the central atrium of which is graced with a sculptural wall—paid for by the faculty—depicting symbols from art, science, literature, and law. The choice of a brick, bas-relief Sumerian wall sculpture for this modern building anchors the core curriculum to the dawn of civilization. The assemblage of symbols is transversed by a cross and enclosed in the biblical Alpha and Omega.

There are cores and there are cores. Students at a rigorous scientific or technical institution like Cal Tech pursue a highly structured curriculum. In such a program there are very few electives and sidebars as the student zooms up from calculus to advanced laser research. Accreditation standards in some technical fields may allow for just one elective in four years. Clearly, rocket science demands a rocket-science curriculum. But there are also examples of completely structured humanistic cores: the Great Books program at St. John’s in Annapolis is one example. It offers a four-year common reading program from the ancient Greeks to the present.

The St. Joseph’s curriculum is different, but it is clearly humanistic. As the college catalogue for 2006 described it, “All through the eight semesters of the Core Curriculum, there is witness to the specific values of our Judeo-Christian and humanist traditions, in keeping with the college motto: Religio, Moralitas, Scientia.” At the same time, St. Joseph’s offers a generous range of the traditional undergraduate majors from art to business administration. The major is pursued in conjunction with the core. Some colleges have serious core requirements that take up nearly all of the first two years of study. The Search Program at Rhodes College in Memphis, for example, requires a freshman-sophomore great-books program before a student selects a major. But since the core at St. Joseph’s is structured as a succession of courses over four years, a student can begin majoring as a freshman. Creative synergy between core and major is thereby enhanced.

What most impressed me was the careful progression of the ten core courses. If one assumes that the goal is to assist the student in discovering who he or she is in the grand scheme of things—the meaning of life, as the old phrase goes—where do you start on such an exploration? I give the St. Joseph planners an A+. “Core One: The Contemporary Situation” addresses the question, Who am I? in light of contemporary history. How has a student’s self been shaped by parents, grandparents, and the history through which his elders lived? An attendee at a Taizé retreat once remarked about its appeal to young people: They don’t give you the answers before you ask the questions. One could say the same thing about the St. Joseph curriculum.

A more common pattern for introducing students to high culture and Christian humanism is to hit them in freshman year with something like the history of philosophy from Plato to the present. (At the conservative Catholic Ave Maria College in Florida, introductory philosophy goes from Plato to Wojtyla.) Having taught such courses, I can’t knock them, but it makes more sense to offer answers from high philosophy and theology only after students have worried through a host of questions for themselves. Following that strategy, the initial reading at St. Joseph’s is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the 1960s. This might seem like an inauspicious way to lay the groundwork for the grand goal of Christian humanism. There is almost nothing about religion, not to mention Catholicism, in this tale of growing up in a situation where shrewd lying becomes a strategic life choice. Following this story of adolescence, students read books like Tim O’Brien’s half-memoir, half-novel The Things They Carried, an account of how soldiers experienced duty in Vietnam. The civil-rights era is then covered, culminating in Martin Luther King’s eloquent “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” A students then writes his or her own memoir, answering the question: “Who am I in a world of war, racism, ethnic conflict, and lies?”

Having started with the contemporary, the next three core courses move backward from the modern world to earlier Christian eras and to the classical roots of Western civilization. Investigation then turns to natural history, examining theories of evolution and cosmology. A particularly interesting choice is presenting intercultural and interreligious studies (concentrating on China from Confucius to Mao) alongside courses on cosmology. Understanding the place of the self in relation to the physical universe leads naturally to those ultimate questions on which world cultures and their religions have offered profound comment. In senior year, one of the core courses is titled “Toward a Christian Humanism.” In case a quick tour of human history and the cosmos has caused the student to forget the conflict and crises explored in freshman year, the reading list for this course begins with Elie Wiesel’s Night. The darkest questions are asked within the context of Christian humanism. The specifically Christian materials reflect sophisticated biblical studies and contemporary theological work. Finally, the student is required to make a personal statement on a significant moral or political issue using the “theories and foundations of the previous Cores.” The senior memoir concludes with a manifesto on “person-oriented concerns, urgent contemporary issues, or a student’s chosen career.”

Does this emphasis on Christian humanism make agnostic, atheist, or non-Christian students uncomfortable? Evidently not. In interviews conducted by various means, no one complained about too much religion. Many said there wasn’t enough. A fundamentalist decided life was more complex than he had thought; an atheist became an agnostic.

The usual scholarly complaint about a ten-course tour of art, science, philosophy, and theology is that it is superficial. Superficiality is always a danger in a broad curriculum, but St. Joseph’s special pedagogical structure helps students go beyond the superficial. Seventy-five percent of the faculty, from across the various departments, teach in the core curriculum as lecturers or discussion leaders. Not only are all students regarded as engaged in a common task, so are members of the faculty, who are required to attend all lectures delivered by their colleagues. As one assessment report noted, “faculty had to change their jargon to dialogue with one another.” Teaching the core, faculty are by necessity co-learners, sophisticated learners but learners nevertheless. A faculty learner is not the be-all-end-all authority, and this creates a more open atmosphere for discussion. Further, participation of faculty from across the disciplines means that there is a two-way synergy between the core and the work that students pursue in their majors. Some 83 percent of the faculty who participate in the core report using core material in their individual disciplines. The program enriches and is enriched by a continuing relationship with specialized studies.

A final strength of the core is that it energizes the most underused “factor of production” in higher education: students. Because St. Joseph’s is a small college, all the members of an entire class year can be assembled in one lecture hall. Everyone hears the same lecture on the subject at hand. When students are segregated across the myriad majors available on the contemporary campus, cross-student conversation is seriously reduced. The specialized lingo of individual disciplines can be as puzzling as a foreign language. At St. Joseph’s a body of common discourse enriches student conversation, both in and out of class. Freshmen can find common conversation with juniors and seniors who are veterans of the same courses. The pedagogical impact of broad participation by faculty from various disciplines, the synergy among core and major courses, and the fact that students share a progressively structured curriculum reduce the risk of superficiality.

So much for intellectual and pedagogical structure. Does it actually work? St. Joseph’s deserves enormous credit for undertaking a level of formal assessment that outstrips any I have seen in more than twenty accreditation visits to colleges and universities up and down the prestige ladder. From 1979 on, St. Joseph’s has carefully examined and reexamined what happens to students. Value questionnaires have been used, and students have been interviewed repeatedly, sometimes by faculty, sometimes by senior students and outside observers. While there are the usual complaints about a boring lecturer or a dull reading assignment, and while not all standardized tests indicate success in a specific desired outcome, a large number of positive measures exist. In a comparison on standardized tests, the gains of St. Joseph’s students in several intellectual skills exceed those at the more selective liberal-arts colleges. One particular measure not wholly irrelevant to education in Christian humanism is a national comparison on what is called a standard personality inventory. While the national trend on the altruism scale of the inventory decreases from freshman year to graduation, at St. Joseph’s it increases by 20 percent.

The effectiveness of St. Joseph’s core may seem to rest on special facts like the size of the institution. But the real problem in adopting a curriculum like St. Joseph’s is that its intellectual and pedagogical assumptions are countercultural in mainstream academia. The size problem could be remedied at larger institutions not by lecturing in the football stadium, but by creating multiple programs or “colleges” with specific content and the same careful attention to structural progress and student cohorting. The truly difficult issue is the role of the faculty. Mainstream academia rewards specialization, not general knowledge. I recall a conversation with the then-dean of Harvard College about how the excellent postwar general-education curriculum (as laid out in Harvard’s Red Book) was being abandoned in favor of distribution requirements. The Red Book had been created by Harvard faculty in the context of the Second World War: if young men were to be sent to defend Western civilization, the faculty wanted them to know what civilization was and why it was valuable. As memory of the war receded and the authors of the Red Book retired, the dean confessed that you simply could not get younger faculty to teach “general education.” You don’t get tenure at Harvard—or most places—by wandering beyond your specialty.

If recruiting generalists at other colleges and universities seems difficult, it is a pressing concern at St. Joseph’s. Some of the originators and enthusiasts for the core are approaching retirement and are deeply concerned about recruiting their successors. I hope they succeed. If they do, it will be by maintaining a strong, visible sense of commitment to the core.

Educational researcher Burton Clark distinguishes between colleges with a saga and colleges that are essentially marketplaces. Colleges with a saga, for instance women’s colleges and black colleges, incorporate faculty and students into the institution’s deep story in ways that make commitment to the college vitally important. In contrast, marketplace colleges have no particular story to tell; they are only about imparting useful skills. Research indicates that colleges with a saga have a powerful educational effect on students. St. Joseph’s has a saga. It expresses a level of serious intellectual purpose that not only energizes students but can also assist faculty development. Members of St. Joseph’s faculty retain disciplinary standing in their major fields, and to that extent they share in the specialization culture of contemporary academia. If in their special disciplines, however, they incorporate not only the content of the core but the spirit of the core, education in their special fields will be enhanced. Research on faculty development at St. Joseph’s clearly indicates that participation in the core improves faculty members’ effectiveness in their own disciplines.

The unique character of St. Joseph’s has been widely recognized. The late educator Ernest Boyer included the college in a list of the five institutions most frequently cited as having successful programs in “general education,” along with such worthies as Harvard and the University of Chicago. And Liberating Education (Jossey-Bass, 1984) observed that “the only [liberating education] that embraces the whole undergraduate curriculum is the core at St. Joseph’s College.” After a visit to St. Joseph’s, the late Monika Hellwig, then president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, declared “this is what every Catholic college should do.”

What about that last encomium? Can one measure the adequacy of the core against, say, the goals of Ex corde ecclesiae, John Paul II’s 1990 exhortation to Catholic colleges to be genuinely and notably Catholic? Philosopher John Nichols, coordinator of the core from 1974 to 1996, wrote in 2005 that “the faculty of St. Joseph’s College anticipated what the pope wrote in Ex corde.... We do in our academic programming exactly what is called for in the papal letters.” At the heart of the pope’s message, Nichols argued, is integration through a dialogue between Catholicism and the varieties of human culture. But does this produce genuine Catholics? “You might as well ask whether the Sunday sermon produces ardent believers,” Nichols responded. Obviously, no curriculum or flourish from the pulpit can deliver grace into the soul, nor is higher education a form of advanced catechism. Education’s task is to understand the faith, and that task is ongoing. In his magisterial work A Secular Age, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor states a principle that could describe the St. Joseph’s core: “Our [present day] faith is not the acme of Christianity nor is it a degenerate version; it should be open to a conversation that ranges over the last twenty centuries (and in some ways before).”

Catholicism is engaged in a long, historical conversation, and St. Joseph’s offers an invitation to join that conversation. Will its graduates carry the conversation beyond the classroom? To really grasp the spirit of the college and the task of Catholic faith, Nichols says, students must understand the need for “new knowledge, new insights, and new connections.” So the final message Nichols has for St. Joseph’s graduates about their Catholic faith is expressed in words he borrows from a bishop at Vatican II: Non basta conservare: it isn’t enough to conserve.

Published in the 2008-03-14 issue: View Contents

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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