Background and Purpose

Core-text liberal arts programs are designed to prompt students to wrestle with fundamental questions of human existence and to reflect on how the contemporary world has been shaped by the past. Such programs often provide undergraduate students with a common intellectual experience, regardless of their majors, and typically feature rigorous and sustained engagement with classical texts. 

The three lead colleges for this project – Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago – have the nation’s oldest core-text liberal arts programs. The three programs vary in their structure, with Yale's Directed Studies' Program having almost complete commonality (including living in the same dorms and having assignment due on the same days), and the University of Chicago offering the least, with students able to choose from among several different tracks. Columbia's program occupies a middle ground, with all students required to take five courses in common and reading the same texts for about 90% of the syllabi. 

The lead colleges set out to strengthen their core curricula informed by data on its impact on current students and alumni. Further, they sought to engage others in similar work through summer institutes where participating faculty would return to their institutions and implement concrete curricular revisions that would strengthen their liberal arts offerings, develop a common intellectual experience for undergraduates, and engage students with challenging classical texts.

Documenting the Impact of Core Text Programs

The external evaluator, Center for Inquiry at Wabash College, assessed data on the lead colleges’ programs through interviews, focus groups, and surveys, and gathered evidence on the lives and careers of students and alumni as well as on the professional trajectory of the faculty who teach in these programs. 

Some findings: 

  • Both students and faculty find the experience of Core courses to be intellectually transformative in ways that set them apart from other courses. For students, they seem to create a framework that allows them to make better-informed curricular decision in their academic careers and to give them a repository of skills and perspectives on which they draw throughout their entire educations. For faculty, these course open new lines of interdisciplinary inquiry and create relationships across disciplines and departments that are unique and highly valued.

  • ‚ÄčThese courses are very hard for faculty to teach, especially the first time they do it.

  • Students are often overwhelmed by the amount of reading these courses demand and often do not keep up with the readings assigned to them. Still, students value the curricula and wish to see them strengthened.

  • The commonality and shared intellectual experience these courses introduce is perhaps their most impactful characteristic. The commonality of the material studied fosters a sense of community and helps balance centripetal forces pervading the student experience. The common curriculum also facilitates a powerful connection across different cohorts of students, connecting lower and upper class years as well as alumni from different generations.

  • Good teaching is utterly central to the success of these courses. To quote one student, "the teacher makes or breaks the Core."

  • Maintaining consistency of teaching quality across sections is one of the greatest challenges of these programs.

The lead colleges have begun implementing changes in how their core programs are run based on the assessment findings. For example, Columbia has begun a series of orientations and academic-year supports for new faculty. 

Widening the Circle of Impact

The lead colleges organized two-week long curricular development institutes, one in 2014 and the other in 2016. These gatherings also were supported by the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) and the Bradley Foundation. 

Faculty participants in the institutes represented 26 diverse institutions, including public and private, small and large, and religious and secular institutions. Another notable feature of the summer institutes was the interest of foreign universities in the American liberal arts tradition, including two schools from Canada (Memorial University of Newfoundland, University of British Columbia), three from Europe (Universidad de Navarra and Univesitat Internacional de Catalunya in Spain and Leuphana University in Germany), and three from China (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Beijing Institute of Technology, and Xiamen University).

Participation in the annual institutes was by selective application and required institutions to propose plans for curricular development and to commit to supporting the implementation of courses developed or revised by the faculty members who attended the seminar. Each institution sent two faculty members, a senior (tenured) and a junior (untenured) professor. The faculty read an intensive common syllabus that included Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, De Tocqueville, Nietzsche and Freud. Participants also strategized on curricular and institutional development, drawing on the experience of faculty from the lead colleges.

We cannot overstate how much our participation in the seminar was an inspiraitonal and transformation experience for us.

Prof. Maura Hanrahan & Prof. Lawrence Bruce-Robinson, Memorial University

Bringing Core Texts Home

Faculty who participated in the institutes have gone on to establish core text programs in their home institutions. Some highlights:

  • Hostos Community College - Prof. Gregory Marks and Prof. Andrea Fabrizio have revised ENG 110 and ENG 111 to create a common humanities-based curriculum called the Core Text program that will satisfy the college’s English composition sequence, the only sequence required of all students. The coherence that a unified humanities-based sequence brings to a community college student's educational experiences is rare and it will put Hostos' students closer to the experience of their peers at four year colleges. The Hostos Core Text program provides students with a grounding to the best that has been thought and written across the ages while complementing the practical, job-oriented skills that they learn elsewhere in the curriculum. 

  • Memorial University - The professors have designed a sequence of two core courses that focus political philosophy and move chronologically from the ancient Greek world to contemporary Canadian political life. These new core courses are required of every Humanities minor and major. 

  • Morehead State University - Prof. Timothy L. Simpson and Prof. Christopher Beckham have redesigned their sections of their Foundations of Education course required of all students at the school of education so that they share 75% of the same core-text readings. The core texts studied include selections from The Republic by Plato and John Dewey's Experience and Education and portions of School and Society.

  • Sacred Heart University - Prof. Joseph Nagy and Prof. Nathan Lewis have proposed a "Human Journey Great Books Seminar". The proposal is for this sophomore level seminar--with a common reading list--to be taken by all undergraduates at Sacred Heart University. 

Dissemination Continues

Columbia has secured two years of funding for visiting professors in its Core Curriculum. This new initiative will recruit two faculty tenured at other institutions to come to Columbia, learn about its Core Curriculum model, get experience teaching with classical texts, and develop a plan to adapt and implement the model at their home institutions. This exciting effort extends the network of collaboration and support beyond the formal Teagle grant period.

Key Lessons

Balancing commonality with choice in syllabi for core text programs: The Center for Inquiry evaluation made the point that insisting on commonality for the sake of coherence can "poison the well" with faculty and diminish their engagement with such curricula. The greater the commonality in syllabi across sections, the stronger the identification students feel with the program; the greater the variability, the greater the number of complaints about variances in workload and fairness in grading. The process of developing a workable consensus on syllabi can be a struggle at many institutions.

Staffing: core text programs may struggle with staffing and rely on non-tenured and non-tenure track faculty to teach some of their courses. At the three lead colleges, each program has to "convert" faculty into career-long supporters of the type of non-disciplinary liberal education that each program tries to deliver. The Center for Inquiry noted that veteran faculty and new faculty speak very differently about the responsibility for teaching in such programs, with junior faculty often reporting feeling "terrified" by the challenge of the courses. So a question that each campus must ask itself is whether there are better ways of supporting new faculty teaching in our programs. To quote the Center for Inquiry, "New faculty struggle with leading discussions; they struggle with staying on top of the readings; they struggle with the theory of these courses: how are they different than departmental courses in literature, philosophy, or history?" They also report that the "conversion" of faculty, often happens after 2 or 3 times teaching a given course. After that point, they tend to develop enthusiasm and commitment to the type of teaching these courses facilitate.

Inter-Institutional Collaboration: The experience of meeting every semester, the depth of discussions generated at each meeting, and the collaborative projects that have developed as a result, have convinced us of the tremendous value of regular inter-school collaboration. Lead colleges have agreed to continue regular meetings and collaborations beyond the auspices of this grant.