The Retrieval of the Core Curriculum

Forming the Foundation of Christian Higher Education

Traditionally, colleges and universities had core curricula for general education. These curricula carefully outlined a series of prescribed courses that would carry out the institution’s goals for a breadth of knowledge to provide what the Yale Report of 1828 called “the discipline and furniture of the mind” and thus produce a truly educated person.

By “discipline of the mind,” the report meant what we today would call logical thinking or critical thinking. The “furniture of the mind” referred to passing on content—knowledge and wisdom and virtue—to students. The traditional core curriculum was embodied in what historians of American higher education call “the old-time college.”

The Unity of Knowledge

This notion of a core curriculum was based on the concept of the unity of knowledge. Most of the old-time colleges were founded by Protestant denominations. But even most of the state universities in nineteenth-century America required chapel and religion courses, and the way they approached education was from the vantage point of the traditional Protestant worldview. (William Ringenberg provides a helpful discussion of the old-time college in his book The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America.)

The basic implication of this Christian approach to knowledge in American higher education for the core curriculum is that this worldview presupposed the unity of knowledge. It made sense to have a unified core curriculum that embodied the best of classical and Christian liberal arts and sciences. These Christian scholars believed that the Christian worldview, and the classical wisdom that overlapped with it, embodied the true, the good, and the beautiful.


In the latter nineteenth century, the broad orthodoxy that undergirded most old-time colleges began to evidence fissures. What some scholars have called a Baconian thrust in nineteenth-century philosophy was part and parcel of these schools. Named for Francis Bacon, the Baconian impulse, allied with Scottish Common Sense realism, often overlapped with a strong confidence in the deliverances of reason and science.

Many Protestant intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the North, began to believe that the older orthodoxy would not hold up under the scrutiny of modern science. This belief became more evident as the consensus of the scientific community in the West increasingly affirmed modern science and its reinterpretation of Holy Scripture.

This trend combined with a growing interest in the currents of theological thought blowing across the Atlantic from Germany. Many began to be concerned that the older Protestant orthodoxy they had been taught was incapable of withstanding the new historical criticism increasingly advocated in the mainstream of the academy in the West.

These changes in American higher education are explained by Jon Roberts and James Turner in The Sacred and the Secular University (Princeton UP, 2000). In the introduction to that book, John F. Wilson accurately describes the process whereby the old-time colleges underwent a transformation as they began to reckon with the findings of modern science, the specialization that went along with that science and the Industrial Revolution, and the resultant fragmentation of knowledge in the emerging universities that contrasted with the unity fostered by the older religious vision.

A “synergy between science and religion . . . had characterized the preceding era,” Wilson explains. In the traditional Protestant colleges of the antebellum period, there was an “interpenetration” between the older orthodoxy and natural science that “sustained a program of apologetics.” In the older Protestant schools and colleges, the raison d’être of science was “finding in the world of nature evidence for the workings of divine order if not a divine mind.”

The required courses in Christian moral philosophy, often taught by college presidents, were “based on this evidence, namely, confidence that divine intention formed the framework of human endeavor.” Wilson is right when he argues that “the critical departure from this hegemonic construct took place in the 1870s. The central step was the impulse to endorse a more specialized pursuit in science” and the “adoption of ‘methodological naturalism,’” which Wilson says “directly undercut” science’s “usefulness to apologetics” (see The Sacred and the Secular University, p. 11).

The Fragmentation of Knowledge

Thus, beginning in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, the unity of knowledge broke down, giving way to a fragmentation of knowledge. And this breakdown of the unity of knowledge was the direct accompaniment to the secularization of the academy in America, a story so well, and sadly, told by James Burtchaell in his classic book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of College and Universities from their Christian Denominations (Eerdmans, 1998). As leading American intellectuals began to doubt the truth claims of Holy Scripture, they had to latch onto something in the place of biblical Christianity. This tended to be empirical knowledge, knowledge that could be substantiated by evidence from the senses.

This development displaced theology as the queen of the sciences, replacing it with empirical science. One result of this process was that the emphasis in education gradually moved from the educated person—the broad, generalist schooling of the classically trained mind—to the scientist. The shift was from generalist to specialist.

Traditional education in the Western world valued broad interdisciplinary learning that made connections between the different academic disciplines. And it valued this sort of learning because of its convictions about the unity of knowledge. On the contrary, modern education, because it devalued the unity of knowledge, moved away from an emphasis on broad, interdisciplinary learning and increasingly emphasized specialization and specialized fields of study.

Education as Career Training

A factor that accompanied the move toward specialization was that college education became more and more identified with career training. Before the twentieth century, the public mission of the baccalaureate degree was to provide broad general education that would produce truly educated leaders who had classically trained minds and knew how to be exemplary citizens and leaders in society.

If at all, preparation for specific careers was seen as only a secondary or tertiary mission of undergraduate degree programs. Colleges and universities were not technical training centers. They were educational institutions. Their aim was to produce, not technicians, but well-educated leaders. This vision all changed in the twentieth century.

Student-Centered Theories

Another way that modernity was affecting education at this time was the student-centered learning approaches that educational theorists such as John Dewey were promoting. Traditionally, the faculty saw curriculum as its prerogative, indeed as its territory. Students did not have the knowledge to decide which courses to piece together for a good general education. The faculty did. The faculty had not only the knowledge but also the wisdom and experience and understanding of the world, past and present, that gave them the ability to decide for young adults how best the latter could become educated persons.

However, in the twentieth century, educational theorists began to question this received wisdom of the Western intellectual tradition. The new student-centered theories demanded that colleges give students more choice in putting together their own personalized general education curriculum.

Indeed, such modern theories held (and hold) that knowledge is about the individual creating or constructing meaning and knowledge subjectively, rather than about the transmission of objective knowledge and wisdom, and virtue from one generation to the next. If knowledge is merely constructive and does not have an objective basis, they concluded, of course, students should be in the driver’s seat in deciding how they are to be appropriately educated.

The Shrinking of Content

Another effect of the new educational philosophy was that content became less important in general education. Technical skill and critical thinking are really the goals of education in a modern democratic society, it was thought. Hence educational leaders began to dispense with the earlier idea of a faculty committed to transmitting ancient wisdom to its students, inculcating truth in them with that faculty prescribing a curriculum that would best accomplish that goal.

The Yale Report of 1828 I mentioned earlier stated that higher education was about the discipline and furniture of the mind. One could say that modernity placed almost all the emphasis on the discipline of the mind—intellectual skills and breadth—but almost none on the furniture of the mind—teaching a body of knowledge designed to transfer truth to students. Obviously, this approach would demand a move away from the core curriculum of the past.

Thus the lack of commitment to the unity of knowledge and the resultant specialization, together with modern student-centered theories of learning and knowledge, eroded the classic core curriculum. The more modernity took hold, the more knowledge became fragmented; the more knowledge became fragmented, the more the curriculum transmitting that knowledge became fragmented. And the pace of this erosion only quickened as students were, more and more, given the reins over the best way to be educated. Furthermore, the number of courses required in general education gradually dwindled with specialization and career training now the order of the day.

The twentieth-century general education curriculum is thus the story of gradual erosion in colleges and universities. The more secularized schools were the first to innovate, especially institutions more dominated by technical and technological training. Colleges that retained their Christian moorings gradually followed.

Distribution Requirements

The first step in this erosion was a move toward “distribution requirements” with careful qualifications. Under this system, students were required, for example, to take two three-hour courses in history. But both courses had to be in the same course sequence. For example, if you took Western Civilization I, you also took Western Civilization II. You could choose to take, say, American History or Ancient History, but you had to take both the first and second semesters of whichever sequence you chose. Or, in the case of literature, you were required to take two courses in literature, and you could choose between Western Literary Masterpieces, American Literature, or British Literature. But you had to take both your literature courses in Western, American, or British Literature. This was the more conservative distribution requirement system.

This system eventually gave way to a freer distribution requirement system. So, to use history and literature as examples again, you had to take six hours in history, but you could choose any two history courses you wanted to take. You might choose to take a course in Readings in the Diplomatic History of Nineteenth-Century Russia or a course in the History of Rock Music since 1975. But you simply had to register for two courses in history.

Or, in the case of literature, you could take one course in Greek Drama and another in Race, Sex, and Gender in the Works of Mark Twain. Student choice became more and more commonplace, especially after the student revolution movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Move Away from the Western Canon

The move away from a more traditional curriculum was also helped along by the move away from a traditional literary canon. This new mentality held, for example, that peasant history and literature was on par with the history of the Renaissance and the writings of Shakespeare.

This trend, often decried by critics as “politically correct,” was simply a delayed result in the 1980s and 1990s of a deeper intellectual and cultural shift that occurred during the student revolution movements. While the student protesters in the ’60s and ’70s were preoccupied with anti-war and economic justice, the student protesters of the ’80s and ’90s were preoccupied with race, sex, and gender, shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western Civ has got to go!”

The freer distribution requirement system over time began to be traded in for more of a general education elective system that would maximize student choice. So, rather than choosing two courses among a panoply of history courses, and another two courses among myriads of literature courses, students in many colleges and universities were now required simply to choose, say, fifteen semester hours in the humanities, twelve semester hours in the social sciences, and so on.

Christian Higher Education’s Response

How did Christian colleges react during this gradual evolution of the general education curriculum in American higher education during the twentieth century? Most—while emphasizing the Christian worldview throughout the curriculum and often requiring specific courses in Christian worldview thinking and religion—became simply a warmed-over Christianized version of the general education trends of the twentieth century. But they were usually about twenty years behind the secular trends.

I am not suggesting that Christian colleges did not know what they were doing or were not concerned about Christian higher education and the Christian worldview. They did and were.

I am saying that they were not as concerned as they should have been about the traditional aims of the college general education curriculum. And because of this concern, they unwittingly let something slip away that was an important expression of their uniquely Christian view of higher education.

Trends Toward Renewal of the Core Curriculum

Recently there have been trends in the other direction, back toward a very specific and prescribed core curriculum. These moves have come from opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum.

On the Left

As I stated earlier, educational modernists of the twentieth century wanted to move away from an emphasis on teaching a body of knowledge designed to transmit truth to students. Well, ironically, some of the call for a more prescribed core curriculum has come from the left. After succeeding in destroying the last vestiges of the old Western canon and traditional core curriculum, many on the extreme left have called for a return to a more prescribed core curriculum.

Now of course, their desire is not to transmit a body of knowledge to students to inculcate ancient wisdom and virtue and truth in them. Quite the contrary—they want to be intentional about displacing what remains of the older thinking in their students and replacing it with postmodern ideology and critical theory.

This move makes sense. If you are deeply committed to radical leftist ideology, if you have dedicated your life to Marxist or feminist ideals—if the reason you went into education to begin with was to fight for a woman’s right to choose, same-sex unions, radical environmental ideology, a deconstruction of the cisgender hegemony, or the redistribution of wealth—then it makes sense that you would want to transmit to and inculcate in your students these ideas and ideals.

On the Right

However, the main impetus for renewing the general education core curriculum has been from conservative thinkers on higher education both within and outside the evangelical community. I find it helpful to use a term often employed by Timothy George, Founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School: renewal through retrieval.

Leading conservatives argue that we must renew general, liberal arts education in the American college by retrieving time-tested educational models of the past both in terms of the form and the content of those historical models. The form involves how the curriculum is put together, that is, being largely prescribed rather than a series of electives. The content involves the transmission of ancient wisdom and virtue.

This renewal of the core curriculum started back in the 1980s and 1990s. Educational leaders in the political sphere wrote reports criticizing leading universities for their lack of the form or content of a traditional core curriculum. Examples of this include William Bennett’s To Reclaim a Legacy and Lynne Cheney’s 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students.

These voices were joined by scholars and authors such as Allan Bloom—who wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, heavily influencing the broadly conservative conversation on higher education—and other thinkers such as New Criterion editor Roger Kimball. The mantle was taken up by conservative think tanks and professional societies like the National Association of Scholars and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and by higher education public interest groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

During this time, scores of colleges have undergone curricular revision, and other colleges have started to reflect these conservative ideals for higher education. Most of these institutions have been conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic institutions, but they have also included Eastern Orthodox and Jewish colleges.

Some of these schools have stripped the entire curriculum down to a reading list of great books. Yet most have simply prescribed a curriculum that their faculty believe will produce an educated person to whom has been transmitted a body of knowledge that reflects time-tested eternal verities, produces breadth of knowledge and introduction to diverse ideas and modes of inquiry, and produces competent, Christian citizen-leaders who are good critical thinkers.

Almost all these schools have seen themselves as being motivated by their conservative Christian worldview, which reasserts the unity of knowledge under God and the duty of teachers as wise men and women who bequeath their students with a body of knowledge that they, in their professional judgment, believe will produce in them an educated mind rooted in the Christian view of the world and life.

Retrieval of the Core Curriculum

For all its problems, the “old-time college” that held sway in America before the acids of modernity began to eat away at it resonated with the Christian tradition and its commonalities with classical conceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Retrieval of this tradition has the promise of aiding in the renewal of Christian higher education.

This promise of renewal is especially important at this cultural moment, when “content” and “virtue” have returned to the center of the college curriculum in left-leaning colleges and universities. This content has filled the vacuum left by modernist critical-thinking or skills-based pedagogy. In this context, the classically informed core curriculum has the power to breathe new life into Christian higher education and through it to aid in the renewal of American higher education.

We are in a time when conservative state legislatures are casting about, sometimes aimlessly, for an antidote to the orthodoxy of postmodernity and critical theory that holds sway as if it were dogma over public universities and community colleges. If Christian colleges can adopt core curricula that rely on the time-honored “discipline and furniture of the mind” provided by the Christian tradition and its commonalities with classical learning, they can offer an alternative to the state legislators with whom they have relationships. Yet this can happen only when institutional leaders stop mimicking warmed-over secular pedagogical models and “sprinkling Bible verses over” them.

This influence could have the promise of leading to a renewal, not just of private Christian higher education, but also public higher education. It would be similar to the way the classical education movement has become entrenched in many states in the public charter school movement.

This retrieval of the traditional core curriculum by Christian colleges will look different at various institutions. Not every purist aficionado of classical or great books education will be pleased with some broader iterations of the Christian core curriculum that will nonetheless contextualize the Christian intellectual tradition and maintain continuity with it. Yet both models will be engaged in this retrieval project.

Regardless, these brave new colleges will center their curriculum on biblical-theological wisdom and the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition. (For examples of this project, see the forthcoming book from Welch College faculty, Christians in Culture: Cultivating a Christian Worldview for All of Life, ed. Matthew Bracey and Christopher Talbot [Welch College Press] and David Dockery and Timothy George’s series, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition [Crossway]).

Thus, as Eric Johnson argues, Christian colleges must seek more than ever to foster a deep incorporation of Christian theology into the structures of thought of the academic disciplines. This goal will be effected via a thoroughgoing interaction with the resources of the Christian intellectual tradition.

Dozens of Christian colleges have already embraced this vision, and let us hope that many more will. A concerted effort in Christian higher education to retrieve versions of the traditional core curriculum can help renew a languishing American academy, thus aiding in the extension of a Christian vision of reality.

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