Why Take the Core? Part I: Experimental Education

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 this first installment, Prof. Jay Samons of the Department of Classical Studies, places Core in a historical perspective. Tomorrow, he’ll give the second half of his argument for continuing with Core into the sophomore year.

Why Take the Core? Part I: Experimental Education

Loren J. Samons II
Chair, Department of Classical Studies

Boston University’s Core Curriculum participates in the only tradition of study that has been proved to produce educated and well-rounded human beings. For over two thousand years, education consisted primarily of the study of language, literature, sciences, and music. By the time of the Roman Empire, such study had come to be known as the “liberal” arts, from the Latin word liber, “a free man.” Such study comprised the subjects and skills necessary for a person who would make his mark on the world by means of his mind, rather than by means of his body.

Stemming from ancient Greece, this form of education dominated the Roman empire and carried into the Middle Ages, where the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) provided the foundation for a thousand years of learning. With the development of universities (from about the twelfth century), specialized study of subjects like law, theology, and medicine emerged, but the liberal arts continued to serve as the proper subjects for those aspiring to an “education.”

Through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ industrial and scientific revolutions, the liberal arts continued to provide the basic form of study in virtually all major institutions of education. Because of this, nearly every great philosopher, poet, artist, or scientist who received an education, was educated in the liberal arts. Well into the twentieth century, study of the liberal arts continued to generate the leaders in virtually every field of human endeavor.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the twentieth century new forms of “education” had taken hold in major colleges and universities. Fields unknown to the creators of the liberal arts increasingly dominated undergraduate education: business, management, communication, and education itself (as a science) emerged as powerful and popular forces within the academy. Yet the fact remains that such forms of “education” remain entirely experimental. Since education in the liberal arts has generated over two millennia of empirical data demonstrating its ability to produce intelligent and good people, surely we must wait at least a couple of centuries before pronouncing whether these newer subjects can be equally successful!


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

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