New Ideas, e.g., Chaucer, Milton, and the KJV

Somehow, I got on the mailing list for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative non-profit dedicated to countering what they believe to be liberal bias in higher education. In the latest issue of their magazine, Intercollegiate Review, there is an article by John Zmirak mocking the courses that some universities offer to satisfy general education requirements.  It’s a sneering list of classes that the editors have decided are not serious enough for college students, such as Stanford’s “The Mathematics of Sports” and Harvard’s “Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.”

IR asserts that only traditional surveys can satisfy core curricula, and that these iconoclastic approaches to the topics fail to provide the most basic “old fashioned” information necessary for well-rounded students.  The corollary assumption is that these are throwaway courses with no intellectual rigor; IR wanted “to see how easily you could check off the boxes in five key disciplines.” (Zmirak conveniently ignores that some of his picks are advanced courses for which a non-major may not be prepared.)

What, then, qualifies as a “solid humanities education?”  IR recommends the following eight courses:

  • Greek and Roman Literature in Translation
  • Ancient Philosophy
  • The Bible (Hebrew and/or New Testament)
  • Christian Thought before 1500
  • Early Modern Political Philosophy
  • Shakespeare
  • American History before 1865
  • Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History

Notice anything there? Once we get into the twentieth century, there is nothing left to learn. The nineteenth is really pushing it, apparently.  When I teach my sections of the post-1865 American History survey, who knows what I might be getting up to, what with all that progressivism, internationalism, race, gender, etc, etc. Imagine if I were teaching something foreign.

The above list does an impressive job of encapsulating a particular form of conservative worldview. Today’s United States of America is the heir of Greece and Rome, of the Christian tradition, and of Renaissance-through-Enlightenment European thought.  The nineteenth century qualifies so that the foundations for modern conservatism may make their appearance.

Throughout the article, religion plays a key role. ISI states that the organization is not affiliated with any religion, but “relies on the moral and cultural traditions that are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage and rooted in Western Civilization.”  Thus, Zmirak is uncomfortable with courses such as one at the College of the Holy Cross that explores religions comparatively, and does not tell you “what some dead pope had to say about how you…should try to act.”  For IR, this misses the point of religion–and all other humanities disciplines–in higher education. They should instill “traditional” values, not open students up to other perspectives.

Zmirak laments that students from differing fields may have little overlap in their studies, that they won’t be able to “argue over ideas” coherently. In his view, the traditional curricula are the only ones that matter; new ways of learning have nothing to offer.  Better that we rehash the same arguments over and over again as if nothing has changed in the world.  Better that we continue to reify t he experiences of whites, of males, of all sorts of privilege.

This may be the most telling passage from the article:

Every BA student, regardless of major, had to conquer these classes to graduate. So you had future ad execs in courses on the American Revolution, aspiring politicians reading Chaucer and Milton, psychology majors thumbing through the King James Bible. These were the kinds of classes that Bluto and Flounder were cutting in the movie Animal House–and no wonder. New ideas only aggravate a hangover. (emphasis added)

Let’s unpack this. You have ad execs, politicians and psychologists–all good, solid, profitable professions.  They are the ones for whom history, literature, and religion courses exist–not the poor souls who actually choose those fields for themselves. And finally, all those dusty tomes comprise new ideas, not, say, Yale’s “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” which can only have an ideological agenda, not actual ideas.

Full disclosure: I have taught a course at the University of Washington with the title “Religion and Conflict in Battlestar Galactica.” ISI will have to deal with that.


  1. Jay D. Dhar · · Reply

    While I agree that the core curriculum suggested by the conservative commentators seems to deliberately exclude anything post-1865, I still agree with the author in that a core curriculum that discusses the Great Books is essential to a liberal education — I would, however, not artificially draw the line at 1865 — Marx, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre would very much be a continuation of the great books (indeed, most lists of suggested Great Books do not stop at 1865) — you could even continue the list to include Frantz Fanon and Habermas (who is alive even today!), among others.


    Many universities continue to have Great Books-oriented Core Curriculum requirements, perhaps most notably Columbia University (there are other others which have also done so).

    I very much applaud Columbia for having the strength to not succumb to political correctness run amok in the 1960s — I commend it for preserving its Core Curriculum.


    This is by no means true of all students, but I have unfortunately come across far too many students during my time here at GWU who, although liberal / social-democratic and with whom I share political ideals, are completely bereft of any critical thinking skills whatsoever, and seem to always look to liberal figureheads/publications regarding what to think in any given political situation. (I imagine the situation is ten times worse among the campus conservatives.)

    They have almost no conception of history (at least pre-1960s history), no conception of Western philosophy — they cannot comprehend arguments of political and philosophical thought, and would be utterly unable to defend their views if called upon to do so in debate. They simply don’t get many cultural and literary references mentioned in all sorts of political texts.

    I agree with the blogger that courses such as “The History of LGBT Rights” are important. But so are the utilitarian arguments of John Stuart Mill, parts of which attacked arbitrary religious injunctions which no one benefits from and which merely cause unhappiness among those affected. LGBT rights opponents are primarily religious zealots and bigots who employ almost no rational argument whatsoever (at least in the eyes of someone from a secular perspective) — arguments such as Mill’s, although not dealing specifically with LGBT rights, offer more succinct and powerful arguments against bigotry than most men of letters do today. What makes Mill further interesting is that, unlike most social liberals today, who base their arguments on concepts and theories of “rights,” Mill makes his arguments based on concepts of utility — while a liberal, his arguments are very different from what you will hear from social liberals in the United States (you will often, however, hear more utilitarian arguments in Western Europe). I might add that, as Mill was British, he probably would not be covered even under the curriculum proposed by the conservative you criticized.

    Mill was a brilliant man — statesmen, philosopher, feminist, defender of human rights — and a major influence on the fields of political science and economics — but alas, since the Great Books have been done away with, nary an American college student (unless he/she be a philosophy major focusing on the history of philosophy) has heard of him!

    (I merely use Mill as an example; there are many other figures like him that should be better known but aren’t — or rather, their arguments should be better known but aren’t.)

    Indeed, the great travesty of modern American college education in the social sciences is best illustrated by the following: a political science student today can spend his entire four years at GWu never having debated someone of an opposing political view, never even having learned the roots of his/her ideology — all he/she need learn are modern methods of political polling and political messaging, attend meetings of the political party of his/her choice to inculcate pre-packaged political propaganda on a biweekly basis, to ultimately serve as an unquestioning, addled cog at some lobbying firm on K Street after his/her four years are up — never having questioned a single thing during his/her “education.”

  2. Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I agree that it is a problem that, at many universities, programs–particularly in the social sciences–have become largely vocational training, and minimize the importance of a broader education. However, I don’t think that the “Great Books” are the only way to provide this grounding.

    Don’t get me wrong–I love the old thinkers as well, but the fact remains that a great deal has happened since they were writing, and there are many more great ideas out there. Columbia’s Core Curriculum throws a bone to non-Western ideas and cultures, but that seems more like political correctness than does providing a wide-ranging curriculum that allows students to fulfill requirements in non-traditional fashions.

    And while I value having read the old classics, I have to say that not everyone needs to. Your political science example is lamentable, if indeed it is the case. GW’s general curriculum requirements are not particularly well organized, but there is still plenty of opportunity to encounter new ideas before getting into one’s major. I would prefer to see, for example, the humanities requirement be fulfillable by a wide range of disciplines and cultures, rather than solely Western ideas. Could their list be tightened up some? Probably. But deciding what to cut is difficult. I served on the curriculum committee for a department going through a massive overhaul of its major requirements, and finding the balance between what all students should take and what should be open to electives was extremely hard. That was for one major; narrowing down a “Humanities” requirement without cutting out valid courses is much worse.

    Finally, there is no reason that the Great Books can’t show up in courses that bear little resemblance to the old fashioned surveys. I love your application of Mill to LGBT studies; let’s make sure to include him on the syllabus!

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