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April 11, 2002 Quest for teachers of the Great Books



by James Martin

Last weekend, April 4 to 7, more than 100 participants from around the world attended the 8th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, which was hosted by Concordia’s Liberal Arts College (LAC).

“There were a couple of dimensions to the conference,” said Professor Harvey Shulman, principal of the LAC. “There’s the institutional, the generating of an association of likeminded institutions, and then there’s the sharing of conversations about books themselves.”

Core-text challenges

Colleges such as the LAC are structured around close, rigorous readings of the “great books” from antiquity to the present — works which were well-represented at the conference by papers such as “Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell as a Doorway to Dante’s Inferno” and “Persuasive Evidence and Persuasion in The Gorgias.” But, Inferno notwithstanding, it was what Shulman calls the “institutional” subjects which were the real hot topics.

Titled “Re(-)forming Liberal Education,” the conference addressed many of the challenges core-text programs currently face. Of particular note was the difficulty in finding new faculty possessing the appropriate backgrounds to teach in such wide-ranging programs, a problem exacerbated by the academy’s increasing emphasis on specialization.

“There used to be a tradition in education that people came through this type of curriculum normally,” Shulman said, “but in the 1960s, a lot of people broke away and instituted programs where groups could choose what they like. Eventually, the next generation didn’t produce the intellectuals and the academics who were trained to teach in the these programs.”

Other topics included ways to assess the effectiveness of core-text programs, and the pros/cons of expanding Western-centric curricula to include Eastern thought. The ACTC membership is certainly not of one mind on many of these subjects, Shulman said, but the overall environment was such that delegates came away brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm.

“We’re trying to retrieve what we consider a significant part of what education’s always been,” he explained. “In some cases, it’s the teaching of judgment.
“How do you teach people to care about making judgments between what is better, what is worse, what is higher, what is lower, what is not beautiful, what is beautiful? It’s not that we have one answer, but [we want to stress] the idea there is such a thing as judgment and taste.”

He added, “The most important thing is not whether you remember this or that particular book, but that, cumulatively, over time, you develop curiosity, and you continue to read and think.

“What I always tell people is, ‘When you use your mind, you don’t use it up.’ The more you use your mind, the more you’re capable of using it for other things. It’s the beginning of an education for life.”

Fred Krantz, a founding professor of the Liberal Arts College, echoed Shulman’s sentiment during a panel on creating and sustaining a core curriculum by quoting the Wallace Stevens line, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

“That’s what we’re talking about here,” he said. “A core text curriculum really is a kind of blue guitar. It changes you.”