Why Take the Core? Part II

In these few weeks before the freshmen begin registering for their Fall 2011 courses on April 17th, several Core faculty and alumni will be sharing their answers to the question, Why take the Core? In the first installment, posted yesterday, Prof. Jay Samons of the Department of Classical Studies placed the Core into a historical context . Below, he’ll completes his answer by considering the value of a Core education.

Why Take the Core? Part II: So Why Choose the Core Curriculum?

Loren J. Samons II
Chair, Department of Classical Studies

If you don’t want to risk $50,000 a year on “experimental” education, B.U.’s Core Curriculum provides students with a proven method of education, one that has generated the vast majority of great ideas, great discoveries, and great works of art.

But perhaps there are even more important reasons to choose such an education. The chief quality of a “free” person (the liber of the “liberal arts”), one might argue, is his ability to make and implement choices about his own life. That means he must be fitted out as both an ethical and a rational creature, and one able to acquire the knowledge he needs to make decisions. Of these three areas—reason, ethics, and knowledge—the first is an unchanging quality that can be taught through various means (mathematics, logic, the scientific method, etc.). Ethics, it seems, is either an unchanging set of principles arrived at by reason or through other means (including the irrational) or a changing set of values dependent on culture and circumstances. The argument between these two points of view—one absolute and the other relativistic—is a permanent aspect of the human condition and must be studied both historically and philosophically: that is, one must attempt to understand the nature of the argument as it has existed through the ages and the tools that might be used to answer the question.

Only the third area, knowledge, can be claimed always to depend on the time in which one lives. Knowledge grows or shrinks, is discovered and lost and rediscovered. It comprises technology as well as fundamental facts about the universe. Knowledge may be applied to the study of reason and to the study of ethics (e.g., historical knowledge), but it comprises only one (and arguably not the most important) input for their study.

The best form of “general education,” founded on the principle of the liberal arts, should therefore comprise a course of study that addresses three fundamental areas: reason, ethics, and knowledge. Thus the Core Curriculum strives to provide a student with a baseline of skills and information necessary for her to make rational, ethical, and informed decisions about her own life. More than two millennia of such education have identified certain texts, disciplines, and data that have successfully provided general education. Nevertheless, recognition of the changing world around us and the expansion (and contraction) of knowledge through the ages demands that we continually address the question of whether long-ago or more recently identified tools for providing an “education” continue to do so effectively. This requires humility in the face of those who have gone (and succeeded) before us even as we attempt to meet questions or situations they may not have faced.

In short, the canon of great works and approaches to education is not immutable, but it has been refined by many generations of human experience and validated by the very world in which we currently live. It therefore demands our respect. For that reason, the process of creating a curriculum like that of the Core always looks in two directions: backwards to determine what has worked in the past and forward to determine how new methods or tools might be adopted to meet the same goals. A student educated in Boston University’s Core Curriculum is, therefore, a student poised to confront a changing environment armed with the best of what previous generations have learned and with the skills, curiosity, and character necessary to acquire new knowledge and meet new challenges.


Click here to read the first part of Prof. Samons’ answer to the question, Why take the Core?

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