Chicago Weekly News, Nov. 18, 1999.
Defense of core cuts rests upon administration mythology
Dennis Hutchinson, Master of the New Collegiate Division and Senior Lecturer in Law, delivered the annual "Aims of Education" lecture at Rockefeller Chapel on September 19, 1999. He took this occasion to defend the recent changes in the Core Curriculum, which have reduced the requirement from 21 courses to 18 or 15 (if language requirements are discounted). He did the same on the Milt Rosenberg radio program "Extension 720," on WGN Radio (720 AM), February 18, 1999, at which time he acted as an administrative spokesman with Dan Garber.
In fact, his defense of the Core cuts represents the administrative block consensus, which includes Geoffrey Stone, the provost, and John Boyer, the dean. All of them use the rhetoric of myths to defend nibbling at the Core. Their favorite myths are the Great Books Myth and the Quantity-Quality Myth.
I will argue that these are straw man arguments intended to justify the Core cutting agenda of the Sonnenschein administration.
The Great Books Myth
When Hutchinson talks about the Great Books, he seems to be thinking of the 54 volume set "The Great Books of the Western World" published by Britannica in 1952, which had Robert M. Hutchins as the general manager, and Mortimer J. Adler, as an adviser who was responsible for the two volume Syntopicon. Possibly because of the commercial success of the Great Books of the Western World, it is normal to think of the set when the Great Books are mentioned. But it is incorrect to identify the great books with Britannica's Great Books.
The source of the appellation "Great Books" is from the British custom at Oxford of referring to outstanding books as Greats. It would be just as appropriate to refer to them as Classics [see George Anastaplo, "What is a Classic?" in The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Ohio University Press, 1983): 284-300], or something like Superlative Books. Adler, for example, has several bibliographies which expand the list of the titles actually published by Britannica.
But thinking of the Britannica set, Hutchinson writes: "the pure Great Books curriculum fails, both as a full realization of liberal education and as a vehicle for improving society." Why? Because, he writes: "The goal is to pursue ideas, not to master specific tomes." I am utterly baffled by this recommendation. Either ideas emanate from Hutchinson's mind like ideas from Plotinus' One, or Hutchinson, like the rest of us, has to read about ideas somewhere. The question is where? In Reader's Digest or in the Greats? He himself recommends reading "originals" (rather than summaries). The problem here is that "originals" may be of poor quality -- so I am sure that Hutchinson is really recommending "great originals." But if that is the case, Hutchinson has scuttled the Great Books by one name and then recommended them by another!
I would say, contrary to Hutchinson, that mastering a specific tome of the Greats is also to have taken a significant step in mastering the idea. The Greats are great because they do a superlative job of discussing the ideas in question. It is a contradiction in terms to say that a Great has not done a great job of discussing an idea. If that should happen, then you have simply misidentified a Great. I can only conclude that Hutchinson has identified the Greats with the Britannica set, and thinks that others have done this also.
The Myth of Quantity and Quality
Hutchinson charges that others are upset by the reduction of courses as if quality were a function of quantity. True enough, in many cases there is no correlation between quantity and quality. But in some cases there is -- specifically in the relation between developing a skill and the amount of practice. For the most part, the more practice one has the more proficient one becomes. Tell a hockey team or a group of dancers that they can do as well with 15 or 18 hours of practice as they can with 21! "More practice, more skill" is true for sports, music, and -- more to the point -- thinking. If the Core Curriculum is practice in critical thought, then obviously the more one does it in different contexts, the more proficient one becomes.
Though Hutchinson himself thinks of liberal education as developing intellectual skills, yet he has managed in his own mind to dissociated the quantity of practice from the quality of the skill, and consequently sees nothing wrong with a reduction in the Core. That the Core Curriculum is or should be an occasion for exercing critical thinking was most emphatically stated by Prof. Herman Sinaiko at "The University in Crisis" (June 4, 1999) panel discussion, and he rightly noted that cutting down on practice time for critical thinking has drastic deleterious consequences!
How can we account for this disassociation between quantity and quality? I suggest that it is due to the existence of a myth which Hutchinson and other administrators share. This is the myth that the Core Curriculum is a General Education Requirement, and that the General Education Requirement is a remedial program for those inadequately prepared by high school education. This is the myth that Martha Nussbaum also accepts in her letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune: "Major Overhaul: Rigor and Requirements at the U. of C.," March 11, 1999. They all think of the Core Curriculum as trying to make up previous educational deficiencies -- but which passing proficiency tests, as Hutchinson puts it, absolves or should absolve one from taking. However, if contrary to their mythical thinking, the Core Curriculum is (or ought to be) an exercise in critical thinking, then no one should be handicapped by being excused from getting the practice.