A Perspective on the Common Core

Dear Editors, 

 

   I am writing at the request of several colleagues in the humanities at Saint Louis University, specifically colleagues in the departments of philosophy, theology and history, to express our shared concerns over the proposed University Undergraduate Core Curriculum and to say that we are very troubled by the elimination of a distinct ethics requirement.

   Under the existing College of Arts and Sciences core curriculum, which, in one form or another, serves all the colleges and schools at SLU, virtually every student takes an ethics course. In fact, because of this strong commitment to ethics across the curriculum, SLU has assembled some of the nation’s leading scholars in theological, philosophical and health care ethics. Now, as part of a move to create a university-wide core curriculum that does not offer discipline-specific courses but seeks instead to satisfy certain “attributions” that can be fulfilled by any number of courses in any discipline, SLU is on the brink of having a core without an ethics requirement.

   At the public forum to discuss the new common core proposal on Feb. 10, 2020, a professor from the Doisy College of Health Sciences asked whether his “Introduction to Patient Care” course could fulfill the ethics attribution. The answer from the University Undergraduate Core Committee (UUCC) was a resounding “Yes!” This is highly problematic, as the following scenario illustrates: some members of SLU’s ethics faculty also happen to be medical doctors. In the course of teaching medical ethics to undergraduate students, they often have to teach some physiology, anatomy, genetics or other aspects of medicine. Yet, one would not expect this course to satisfy a biology or health sciences requirement. Yet, that is precisely what the UUCC proposes in reverse: expecting someone teaching nursing or physical therapy to also teach “ethics.”

   Degree programs in the Doisy College of Health Sciences, the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing and the College for Public Health and Social Justice leave very little room in the curriculum for electives, so it benefits these programs to have ethics taught as an “attribution” within an already existing course in the major. But if, as SLU’s mission statement declares, we are committed to the “dissemination and integration of the values, knowledge and skills required to transform society in the spirit of the Gospels,” we have to question the effectiveness of ethics as a mere “attribution.” The elimination of a distinctly Jesuit, Catholic ethics core requirement undermines that which distinguishes a SLU undergraduate education from other schools in the region.

   What incentive is there for parents and students to spend $40,000 a year in tuition at SLU when they can get the same “general education” at the University of Missouri for about $10,000 a year? Why are our students seeking an undergraduate degree from a university—a research university, at that—if their sole motivation is professional training and job placement? There are other paths to gainful employment in technology and medical services. The reason students come to SLU is for the value of an undergraduate university degree, which at a Jesuit Catholic university means a demanding, interdisciplinary grounding in the liberal arts with requirements in history, philosophy, theology, ethics, literature, mathematics, natural sciences and foreign languages. This common core proposal devalues that which used to make a SLU education distinctive and valuable.

   Finally, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Christian Ethics, the leading non-denominational scholarly association devoted to scholarly work in Christian ethics, I can attest to the standing and excellent reputation of our ethics faculty in the profession. Given the world-class ethics faculty at SLU, it makes little sense not to draw upon their expertise. Given the cost of a SLU undergraduate education, it makes less sense to have ethics taught by attribution by non-specialist faculty with little expertise in ethics. To put it bluntly, the common core proposal was not designed to preserve and enhance SLU’s Jesuit Catholic mission, but represents the interests of those departments represented on the UUCC. It is worth noting that the UUCC did not have a single voting member from philosophy, theology or the Jesuit order.

 

Sincerely,

 

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Professor of Theological Studies