The committee heard from two panels on whether the Legislature should mandate more Western Civilization studies options offered to students at state-supported colleges and universities.
Such options could include a Great Books program or an alternate line-up of core classes designed to explore foundational documents and guiding principles in the history of European democracy and the United States.
During the hearing, higher education commissioner Raymund Paredes hinted he may re-open the 42-hour Core Curriculum for further debate and revision. That’s the board’s call, as the Core Curriculum required for Texas universities and colleges is set by board rule, not legislative mandate.
No one suggested bills to mandate a Western Civilization-centered Core Curriculum – though the committee’s more conservative members were absent, including Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler). In attendance were Reps. Branch, Howard, Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), Diane Patrick (R-Arlington), and Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas).
Paredes said lawmakers would make “a mistake” were they to prescribe Core Curriculum.
He said there are other options than to create an optional Western Civilization-centered core curriculum list, or a “plethora of new courses,” such as strengthening student advising offices to allow students to make the most of what courses already exist.More classes means more confusion?
“There’s a phrase being said over and over again, that’s not grammatically correct,” Paredes said, “but makes a good point: ‘Less courses, less confusion for the students,’ particularly if student interest is concentrated in about 50 courses in the lower division level.”
Paredes said adding more courses would just add to the “hodge-podge.”
“In regard to the three areas of focus being considered in this charge — Ethics, Western Civilization and American traditions — students currently have ample opportunity to study all three,” he said. “ … I would argue that perhaps the real issue is not whether we need to create an optional curriculum but rather make sure that students have better advising so they can pick from among the plethora of courses that identify appropriate areas that are being considered here… [T]here’s already plenty ofevidence to suggest that students are very confused about the range of options they have.”
In terms of teaching ethics, Paredes said, “[D]eveloping personal values for personal behavior” is already one of the explicit goals of the Core Curriculum. He said during his years as an English professor, he expected that two books be read outside the required reading — the Bible and any handbook of classical mythology.
“It’s impossible to understand American literature without a knowledge of either or both the Bible and some mythology,” he said.
As to the American traditions portion of the interim charge, Paredes said six hours of history and U.S. government are already required in the Core Curriculum.
He stressed the importance of comparing Western ways with those of other societies, especially China and the predominantly Muslim nations. To focus only on the West, he said, may not be the right direction.
“As someone who also has a degree in American studies, your comment about comparative learning is helpful,” Chairman Branch said, “because I think some of my best understanding of political and economic systems were from coursework I took at Georgetown University, where I learned about their systems and more through comparison and contrast about our
system. I agree with your concept, there.”
Lorraine Pangle, co-director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Core Text and Ideas at the University of Texas (which replaced an emerging Great Books and Western Civilization program), called for “seed money” for new civics classes at universities to cooperate with existing core curricula.
“Our philosophy is,” said Pangle, “the best way to educate students for leadership is by integrating high-level civic education with the most rigorous kind of liberal education. … The aim of the Jefferson Center goes beyond this kind of study of civic education and our own heritage in America to offer what we understand to be the most essential element of a liberal education. So here the focus goes toward helping students think for themselves and enter debates over these questions of human meaning
that have had different answers and many different approaches taken.”
The Jefferson Center has six courses available, including Ancient Greece, basic religious texts, history of political philosophy, American constitutional principles, and two electives, she said – enough opportunity for a student to learn about the founding principles of the West, as well as the rest of the world.
Those in favor of change
Though he didn’t mention his former project by name, Dr. Robert Koons, former director of the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at UT (now reenvisioned as the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson Center), spoke in favor of an optional “integrated” sequence of interdisciplinary courses that focus on the great books of Western civilizationand ethics and character which count for Core Curriculum credit.
As Koons can attest, such an approach was attempted at UT as a free-standing, elective program, but met vigorous opposition. Koons was removed as director of the Great Books program before it was retooled as the JeffersonCenter (LSR, 08/21/09).
“[Teaching Western Civilization] is what we’ve done in the past – we’re not defending something out of thin air – this is something that’s worked in the past,” he said. “… So what I would recommend in terms of a specific proposal is not to add to the existing core. […] My ideal suggestion would be to provide an alternate existing core, and empower universities and colleges.”
John M. de Castro, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University, said his school has a free-standing “freshman learning community” to read through Great Books and review foundational principles. De Castro said despite resistance to teaching students an approved set of morals, the lack of ethics has resulted in some disastrous situations, particularly in financial markets.
“… Our Constitution does not function without ethical and moral individuals,” he said.“Our recent experience with the financial crisis in this country is a perfect example of how a breakdown of ethics and morality can almost bring down our culture. In this case, it was a breakdown, not of single individuals … it was an entire systemic breakdown of morals from one end to the other — from the homeowner who bought a home they couldn’t afford, to the real estate agent who sold it to them, to the banker who gave a mortgage, to the Wall Street banker who packaged it into a security and sold it, to the bond rating firms who rated these as AAA when they didn’t deserve it. The breakdown was massive. It was a loss of core principles, and core morality and core integrity.”
National Association of Scholars Chairman Steve Balch said in a day of expanded life expectancies, disease reduction and other technological advancements, it is important that such power – once craved by the ruling elite but now possessedeven by the working class – should be tempered with moral responsibility.