The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost


The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

Core Humanities

One piece of good news is that the proportion of students taking “Human Being and Citizen” (HBC), Chicago’s flagship humanities sequence, has remained relatively strong. It is difficult to gauge the relative influence of student demand and professor supply, but more students take HBC (23 percent) than any of the alternatives. HBC students commonly read Genesis, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare or Dante, Kant, a great novel such as Moby-Dick, and more, such as modern poetry or American political documents. They develop reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills through small discussion sections.

HBC is not the only good choice in core humanities; “Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities” and “Greek Thought and Literature” also have excellent reputations among those who value classic readings. Their subject matters are not limited by disciplinary boundaries, and one reason such sequences thrive is that they are staffed by faculty from across several departments. Unfortunately, though, a student with an interest in philosophy can avoid studying imaginative literature by taking “Philosophical Perspectives”, and a student interested in the Greeks can avoid studying the following two thousand years of civilization.

Students encounter a number of great works in the other sequences, too, but those sequences tend to revolve around predetermined themes rather than helping students work through each text on its own terms. The first quarter of “Readings in World Literature” (RWL) examines literary accounts of “alienation” from Plato through the 1980s. Its second quarter studies “the problem of evil” in Shakespeare, Conrad, and others. Its third quarter treats special topics such as “Gender and Literature” or “Poetry.” Although the faculty decided ahead of time the central topic with which to examine the texts, at least students are reading, writing, and thinking about excellent works of literature most of the time.

“Media Aesthetics” makes use of the humanities in an entirely different way, focusing less on the Great Conversation than on several of the fundamental human “powers” (see below on Levine’s Powers of the Mind). The first quarter focuses on “seeing,” the second on “hearing,” and the third on “reading.” The sequence is explicitly distanced from its usually less rigorous cousin, “media studies,” focusing instead on great works and other works in various media. Even more than in RWL, Media Aesthetics puts a particular spin on what to look for in each text, but the course keeps deep questions open for discussion. One of the most interesting questions guiding the sequence is, “Do we learn new ways of seeing and hearing from inventions like drawing, painting, photography, the phonograph, cinema, and video?”

While the core has escaped the clutches of “media studies,” it has not escaped from cultural studies. “Reading Cultures: Collection, Travel, Exchange” is essentially a cultural studies sequence. The first quarter “focuses on the way both objects and stories are selected and rearranged to produce cultural identities.” The winter quarter focuses “on the literary conventions of cross-cultural encounter [and] on how individual subjects are formed and transformed through narrative.” The spring quarter

works toward understanding the relation (in the modern and post-modern periods) between economic development and processes of cultural transformation. We examine literary and visual texts that celebrate and criticize modernization and urbanization… As the quarter concludes, students develop projects that investigate the urban fabric of Chicago itself.

The Reading Cultures students are getting very little, if any, of a true University of Chicago education in the humanities—neither the Great Books nor much of the Great Conversation. It is hard to see how deep questions are open for debate, since the course presumes a “relation” between economics and culture and spends quite a lot of time on “urbanization.”

If one of the goals of a core curriculum is to provide a common intellectual experience for all students on campus, this goal is almost entirely lost at Chicago (not to mention almost everywhere else), where the core humanities options range from Genesis and Plato to a “project” on the city’s “urban fabric.” This variety teaches students that there is no literary heritage to be appreciated in common by educated persons. A student cannot count on being able to sit next to other students in the dining hall and deepen one another’s understanding of a classic text.

Western Civilization

The curriculum controversy of the late 1990s was followed by another in 2002, when the university announced that it was ending its popular, decades-long run of “History of Western Civilization” courses. The history department no longer thought such courses made sense. They were replaced by two sequences—“History of European Civilization” and “Ancient Mediterranean World”—and students would only have to take one to fulfill the civilization requirement. Try as it might, however, the history department has not been able to excise the idea of Western Civilization from this Western university.

In Autumn 2009, Western Civilization remains in only one oversubscribed section due to high student demand but virtually no professorial supply. Meanwhile, “America in Western Civilization” has been renamed “America in World Civilization”—its syllabus, no doubt, changed accordingly. These changes reflect the department’s onslaught against the idea of a distinct Western heritage, not just at the cultural and geographic margins, where syncretic studies make sense, but through and through.

Nevertheless, students can get plenty of Western Civilization if they choose. They can fulfill the civilization requirement by taking “Music in Western Civilization” (when it is offered) or with study abroad in courses such as “France in Western Civilization.” Besides, hundreds of individual courses focus recognizably on the history or literature of Western nations and Western cultural figures, whether they acknowledge it or not.

It is also important to remember that one of Chicago’s enduring strengths has been its many world-class scholars and courses in non-Western civilizations. But an upstart sequence is not about a major world civilization at all. Called “Colonizations,” it

approaches the concept of civilization from an emphasis on cross-cultural/societal connection and exchange. We explore the dynamics of conquest, slavery, colonialism, and their reciprocal relationships with concepts such as resistance, freedom, and independence, with an eye toward understanding their interlocking role in the making of the modern world.

The course begins with “slavery, colonization, and the making of the Atlantic world,” turns to “modern European and Japanese colonialism in Asia and the Pacific,” and then “considers the processes and consequences of decolonization both in the newly independent nations and the former colonial powers.” This is the only “civilization” course that explicitly flouts the educational standard for such courses in the college catalog, which states, “Each sequence provides an in-depth examination of the development and accomplishments of one of the world’s great civilizations through direct encounters with some of its most significant documents and monuments.” Fortunately, only 37 students are taking Colonizations this year.

Core Social Sciences

Although the social sciences core did not change in 1999, students are hardly getting a common intellectual experience. Chicago undergraduates can choose among five three-quarter sequences: “Classics of Social and Political Thought” (CSPT), “Power, Identity, and Resistance,” “Self, Culture, and Society,” “Mind,” and “Social Science Inquiry.” As these courses demonstrate, one of Chicago’s better traditions is to use course names to advertise the tackling of Big Questions or Big Problems.

Parallel to HBC, CSPT has long been the flagship social sciences course. CSPT asks, “What is justice? What makes a good society? This sequence examines such problems as the conflicts between individual interest and common good; between morality, religion, and politics; and between liberty and equality.” Students read Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Aquinas, and Machiavelli in the autumn; Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in the winter; and Smith, Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber in the spring.

As in the humanities, CSPT is not the only excellent option, yet the alternatives include a wider variety of texts and more specific thematic spins, for better or for worse (course descriptions can be found here). “Power, Identity, and Resistance” first examines “modern political economy and its critique” by engaging directly with Smith, Marx, Durkheim, and Mauss. In the winter it backtracks to classical liberalism and individualism (and its critique) via Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, and Mill, and the spring quarter jumps forward to Hayek, Polanyi, and Freud, but also to Fanon, de Beauvoir, and Anzaldua (and more recently the list included Lenin and Trotsky). Similarly, the “Self, Culture, and Society” sequence starts with Smith, Marx, and Weber but then turns to Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Sahlins, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno, “and other anthropologists and cultural theorists.” In the spring the sequence engages “gender, sexuality, and ethnic identity.”

In contrast, “Mind” takes a different approach:

an empirical, scientific approach to understanding the functions of the mind. Drawing on psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and a number of other social as well as biological sciences, the course examines how the mind operates at multiple levels of analysis (e.g., biological, psychological, societal) and across a variety of time scales…

These are interesting studies, but it is hard to find much of the Great Conversation in “Mind.” “Social Science Inquiry,” still more generally, examines social science epistemologies and research methods.

The social sciences core thus offers very little of a common education. Most students will not escape Smith, Marx, or Durkheim. But the vast scope of the social sciences, the catalog argues, leaves the core little choice but to give a taste of “the scientific spirit as applied to social problems and the capacity to address oneself in that spirit to such a problem” (quoting Robert Redfield). Students outside of CSPT are unlikely to hear that there are enduring, substantial “social” questions about which an educated person ought to be able to share some wisdom.

Core Sciences

Even the sciences are, educationally, not what they used to be at Chicago. The idea of an integrated science curriculum as part of a liberal education has been withering away, and almost no such courses are left. Rare is the college that can sustain a two-day conference on teaching the natural sciences as part of a liberal education, but in 1984, under Dean Levine, Chicago did it. The results included three different two-year integrative sequences, plus one even in “mathematical science.” By 2005, however, all that remained was “Evolution of the Natural World” in four quarters, with most alternatives in two quarters. The designation “mathematical sciences” disappeared. Here, too, the college offers little idea of the scientific knowledge and proficiencies all educated persons should have.

What’s Next?

Do students—even at Chicago—still have patience for the Great Conversation? Chicago’s undergraduate body has exploded in size past 5,000 (ten years ago it was more like 3,500). More and more students are attending Chicago to become “change agents” or merely to prepare for a career. Not just study abroad and early graduation distract students; 300 student organizations now fragment student life. “Knowledge” seems to consist of nuggets trawled out of the Internet. When the only intellectual power that gets much lip service anymore is the vaguely understood catchall “critical thinking,” students hardly even expect that they should be developing powers of induction, deduction, and so on. Is there even much of a culture of teaching left among Chicago’s world-class, specialist research faculty?

Levine’s Powers of the Mind outlines how much opportunity was lost when the University of Chicago’s curriculum review, ten years ago, resulted in significant cuts to the core but virtually no creative thinking. The present analysis shows the additional erosion of the core since then. The 1984 revisions had left wonderful curricular thinking on the table, but the tepid 1998 review prompted Levine to recover and rework it in his book.

Powers of the Mind is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the University of Chicago undergraduate curriculum past and present. (I was Levine’s research assistant.) It is also essential for anyone ready to make a real attempt to get liberal education on its feet again. Levine takes apart the traditional liberal arts—the seven of the trivium and quadrivium—and reassembles them, updated for the 21st century, into eight kinds of complementary powers. The first four are powers of “prehension”: audiovisual powers, kinesthetic powers, powers of comprehending verbal texts, and powers of understanding worlds. The second four are powers of expression and agency: of creating a self, composing statements and resolving problems, integrating knowledge, and sharing meanings with others. Cross these powers against various modes of teaching, questions to be examined, and materials to be learned, and perhaps a college can plan a curriculum with integrity.

Tinkering with existing curricula will get education reformers nowhere, for most schools provide no common background, give no sense of the knowledge an educated adult should have, provide no integrated engagement with the development of our civilization, provide no path for gradually increasing one’s powers, seldom provide an education unbound by academic disciplines, and are stuck with too many students who don’t want to learn and too many professors who don’t want to teach. The most “intellectual” students at Chicago probably make their way lonely in the crowd because general education can no longer be found there (or almost anywhere) and because Chicago offers much less of a liberal education than its reputation might suggest.


3 thoughts on “The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

  1. The core classes I took at Chicago in the 70s were also the best classes I took there. Nothing prevents students from taking more core classes as electives as far as I can tell. I’m not sure about forcing anyone to participate–that seemed to dilute the quality of discussion and level of preparation.

    I agree completely that there should be more effort to make at least one set of courses into a coherent program. For example, I remember reading and discussing Thucydides numerous times for different classes when I was there. I didn’t really mind, but as a result I didn’t have an opportunity to discuss other important classics.

  2. I personally object to Chicago’s Core as a mandatory requirement for graduation, whether in its current incarnation or any previous form.

    that said, I cannot find fault with the Core for any individual wishing to pursue “thought”, become familiar with historical trends in political, economic or theological ideology or if they are simply interested in such things.

    my objection to the Core is two-fold.

    the student has a mere four, very expensive years to either prepare for a career in the rest of the world or establish a firm base from which to begin more specialized study in a field of their choosing. The Core (or any other similar curriculum) by its time consuming nature, takes away opportunities for students seriously interested the physical sciences and mathematics to appropriately prepare themselves.

    My second objection is personal and ironically, subjective. In spite of having read most of the Great Works (both personally for interest and under duress while a student) I have found many of them woefully irrelevant to modern human life, difficult to read and often exquisitely painful in the utter nonsense of their prose. It is hard for me to defend these works against the charge that they are nothing more than the self important thoughts of rich, dead white guys. And when one considers how barbaric our world has been and continues to be clearly there’s a need for some new thoughts on “civilization.”

    finally, there is the problem of subjectivity in courses in such topics. One might ask “did my son get an A in Plato simply because his essay work agreed with the instructor’s opinions?”

    My own view on being well educated hinges on how well suited an individual is to actually solve problems, influence positive change and LEAD. Being well read and well informed is certainly part of the process, but it rightfully is the private responsibility of the individual to become well read on their own and make it a life-long passion to pursue truth and remain informed.

    The Core has its place, and the school is right to offer it, but making it mandatory seems to place an undue (and arguably incorrect) emphasis on the Nature of Man and takes away opportunities to examine the Nature of Nature.

    I would be grateful for a response and perhaps the chance to be persuaded otherwise during a discussion.

    1. I suppose it’s a bit late to reply but, on the chance Mr. Wood returns, your comment says more about your failure to cultivate your soul than the education offered at one time by Chicago. If you view education as little more than glorified Vo-Tech training, then better to go to the Vo-Tech “One day, one night, Saturday’s alright” than to a university. A university is about a discovery of the self as much as it is about an engagement with “the best that’s been thought and said.” The attitude you reflect in your comments, the customer service model and ROI measure of university education, is shallow consumerism parading as principled pragmatism. The Core provides the conceptual coordinate points to make sense of the past, present, and future: today, we still see the great archetypes of appearance vs. reality, nominalism vs. realism, equality vs. liberty, etc, playing out on multiple fronts of society. If the classics failed to move you perhaps that says something about you rather than them. The reason why the Core should be mandatory is because, as Socrates argued, the ignorant don’t know what they don’t know. The Core is a way to begin the process of leaving the Cave to make one’s way to “the light” to begin the process of discovery. If you let the ignorant decide what classes to take, how will they know what they should study? Let me guess — it’s all about the cost of tuition, getting a job, etc. If so, “one day, one night, Saturday’s alright . . .”

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