Keep the Core Jesuit

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Keep the Core Jesuit

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Three years ago, the University Undergraduate Core Committee began work on a new core curriculum, which the SLU community saw in proposal form earlier this month. From the outset, the UUCC was ostensibly committed to preserving SLU’s Jesuit identity and mission. The first Core Student Learning Outcome reads, “All SLU graduates will be able to examine their actions and vocations in dialogue with the Catholic, Jesuit tradition.” The problem is not with the Student Learning Outcomes themselves, but with their implementation. When we evaluate whether the proposal remains faithful to SLU’s Jesuit mission, we must resist the temptation to revert to vague platitudes about what the Catholic, Jesuit identity means, as I think has been the tendency. We need to be precise in our language and honest in our assessment when discerning whether this proposal, which will be voted on next March, upholds the values that a Jesuit institute of higher education should uphold.  

   This problem of ambiguity over what a Jesuit education should look like is not unique to the UUCC, or even to SLU in general. “Jesuit Education” has long been a mindlessly familiar couplet, cheapened through constant use without reflecting on what it actually means. There is simply no excuse for this neglect. We have an entire body of literature at our disposal, beginning in 1586 with the first draft of the “Ratio Studiorum” and moving all the way into the 21st century, which spells out clearly and unambiguously what a Jesuit education looks like. We have the “Spiritual Exercises”, the “Constitutions” of the Society of Jesus and the writings of countless generations of scholars who have studied, interpreted and adapted these original writings in a coherent articulation of how the Jesuit educational philosophy should be implemented. In other words, while the discourse surrounding the Jesuit ideals that underpin the core proposal has tended towards ambiguity, what these ideals themselves actually are is decidedly unambiguous. It has become apparent that the proposal for the new common core curriculum, in reducing philosophy and theology requirements to one course each and abandoning completely any sort of foreign language requirement, fails to remain true to several of these key Jesuit values. 

   In offering this criticism, I am fully aware that as it stands, many majors and programs which are not in the College of Arts and Sciences do not currently require more than one philosophy and theology course and that it would be unfair to call this aspect of the proposal a blanket reduction when in some cases no reduction has been made. That said, I think this objection misses the point. Our current practices aside, what we include in a University wide core at this critical juncture, and, perhaps more importantly what we leave out, is a reflection of what the University itself values. Whether or not it is a current practice for some programs is irrelevant; we have an opportunity to fix what isn’t working and to keep in place what is, and the bottom line is that giving insufficient attention to philosophy, theology and foreign languages in a University wide common core at a Jesuit university is unacceptable.  

   I should also say at the outset that I do believe Jesuit pedagogy must evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century. At its most basic level, the function of an education is to prepare a student for the life that is ahead of them. The “Ratio” was written nearly five hundred years ago, and it is beyond dispute that as modes of living change, so too should educational philosophy adapt to meet those changes. But just as tradition for tradition’s sake is pointless, and often even harmful, so too is change for change’s sake. We must find a balance between a forward facing stance which anticipates the needs of a constantly transforming job market and one that cherishes the facets of Jesuit education which have worked for centuries. 

   Competency in a foreign language has been at the heart of Jesuit education since the 16th century, and it is just important now, arguably even more so, than it was when the “Ratio Studiorum” was first penned. Of course, Jesuit pedagogy has had to adapt since then, and rightfully so. We no longer require a strict and rigorous diet of Latin and Ancient Greek, something that was a staple of Jesuit education since the beginning. However, adaption to the demands of modernity must be made cautiously, and eliminating the foreign language requirement in its entirety is simply antithetical to the Jesuit ideals which the UUCC professes to defend. At the UUCC open forum earlier this month, a spokesman for the committee said that the absence of a foreign language was a “lamentable” but necessary step that other peer universities have taken when standardizing a core. Setting aside the fact that other peer universities (Boston College, Georgetown, Fordham, etc.) have not completely abandoned a foreign language requirements, this would not be a valid justification for SLU if it were true. SLU cannot claim to be an educational frontrunner, a phrase I heard repeated at the core proposal open forum, if we attempt to avoid culpability for compromising on key Jesuit values by appealing to the actions of other universities. Even if the absence of a foreign language requirement was a trend among peer Jesuit schools, which it is not, that should have absolutely no bearing on SLU’s decisions. The UUCC’s decision to include or exclude a foreign language requirement should be motivated by an evaluation of the position that foreign language study has occupied in the Jesuit tradition, and throwing our hands up and saying “but Georgetown did it too” is not a valid response. 

   The proposal’s diminished emphasis on philosophy and theology is equally troubling. If the proposal is accepted, SLU will fall well behind our peer Jesuit universities in terms of philosophy and theology requirements. These classes are essential to the intellectual growth of SLU students, who are afforded the opportunity to critically engage with and reflect on questions like  “How should I live?” and “What makes my life meaningful?’ or “Why should I be moral, and what does it look like to live morally?” These requirements also distinguish SLU graduates from graduates of other universities by training students of all backgrounds to approach their respective disciplines with a firm grasp of the ethical and moral issues a stake. 

   In 1981, Leon Kass addressed an incoming class of University of Chicago students on the aims of a liberal education, cautioning them on the dangers of emphasis on the selective acquisition of technical skills: “The technical expert who is liberally educated to the habit of thoughtfulness is less likely to become that most dangerous fellow, a specialist without vision who knows how to get rockets up but cares not where they come down.” Almost 40 years later, these words are eerily prescient. To take just one example out of the many that litter current headlines, Boeing has come under fire after two 737 aircrafts crashed just months apart, with a final death toll of 346. In the wake of these tragedies, it has become apparent that rampant corruption and deceit, originating at the top of the corporate hierarchy, was to blame. It was the abandonment of ethical principles, rather than any lack of technical knowledge, that led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent passengers. Tragedies like this are a harsh reminder that the neglect of ethical and moral considerations can have disastrous results, and that we should be apprehensive about a core curriculum which does not place enough emphasis on ensuring that graduates are thoroughly experienced in dealing with moral and ethical concerns.

   The Boeing incident also reminds us that the debate over the core curriculum is not an ivory tower affair. It has real world implications, and the stakes are gravely serious. When evaluating the core, we must return to the characteristics that are supposed to distinguish a SLU graduate from a graduate of any one of Missouri’s top public schools. These distinguishing characteristics are attributable to SLU’s commitment to providing an education rooted in the Jesuit tradition for students in both STEM and non-STEM majors, and the common core proposal leaves this commitment in doubt.