Edward Jones: Belmont Abbey College's new core curriculum is antidote to the 'abolition of man'
This semester, first-year students at Belmont Abbey College are being introduced to an exciting new core curriculum. What's new about it? Essentially nothing.
That may explain why there's a "new springtime" of intellectual ferment blossoming on our 135-year-old campus.
When they were creating the new core, the team of Abbey professors and administrators who crafted it – led by Dr. Carson Daly, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty – seems to have taken to heart C.S. Lewis's impassioned admonitions to educators in his book, "The Abolition of Man."
Lewis said the paramount duty of educators is not to subject students to all that is trendy, "progressive" or "new" in education, but rather to pass on to them that which is transcendent and time-proven – that is, the hard-won, shared system of traditional values that has been handed down through the centuries.
Lewis called this shared system of traditional values the "Tao," and he asserted that these are the core truths that form and nourish man's core. Indeed, Lewis averred that abolishing these core objective truths from our curricula is tantamount to abolishing man.
Belmont Abbey College's new core curriculum has been carefully structured to nourish and strengthen our students' inner core with the traditional values that Lewis was defending. Thus, our new core might be thought of as an antidote to the "abolition of man."
The required courses comprising the new core curriculum (constituting 50-53 of the 120 hours needed to graduate) are the following: First-Year Symposium, Rhetoric I and II, Introduction to Scripture, Introduction to Theology, Classic Texts in Political Philosophy I and II, Western Civilization I and II, Literary Classics of the Western Tradition I and II, the U. S. Constitution, mathematics, two science courses with labs, Fine Arts, and an introductory course in Psychology, Sociology or Economics.
We regard the whole core as important to the education of our students, giving them a broad grounding that few college students anywhere receive today. Although there isn't enough space here to go into detail about every part of our core, I'd like to explore just two of the courses.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson once led an approving crowd of Stanford students (and some complicit faculty members) in the chant, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!" Not so at Belmont Abbey College.
In this two-part course, Abbey students savor Sir Kenneth Clark's magisterial guided tour of Western history and art, "Civilisation," besides other texts that are supplemented with historical novels to give students a feel for everyday life during certain eras.
The most emblematic (and some might say radical) change made to the Abbey's core is in the "new/old" way that writing is now taught: "Composition" and "Argumentative Prose," the two previous introductory English courses, have been replaced with "Rhetoric I and II."
This two-course sequence is built upon the foundation of classical rhetoric, one of the seven original liberal arts. Developed by the classical Greeks and Romans, this is the course of study that not only gave rise to the timeless eloquence of Cicero, Augustine, Dante and Shakespeare, but also animated the writings of America's Founding Fathers.
Dr. Angela Miss, associate professor of English, explains the rationale for going back to this all-but-forgotten method of writing instruction: "Rhetoric formed the center of liberal education for two and a half millennia, and through the 19th century, it was regarded as one of the most important disciplines taught in college. With the advent of the 20th century, however, the emphasis placed on rhetorical study diminished, and so, accordingly, did our ability to communicate well in both spoken and written discourse."
Some of our fellow educators – as well as some parents and students – might call this "retro" approach to writing instruction naïve, impractical or out of touch with the demands of the 21st century economy. We respectfully disagree. The time-proven pedagogical techniques we've reinstituted will better prepare our students for success in their careers and lives.
In a recent interview in the Abbey's alumni magazine, Dr. Daly makes this very point: "Since many high schools have abdicated their responsibility in teaching how to write and speak, such an approach is not only sorely needed, but will also make our students better candidates for employment after they graduate. In survey after survey, employers say that the top two abilities they are looking for in job candidates – and not finding – are the ability to speak and write clearly. In the current, tough job market, I believe that our focus on helping our students to speak and write well will help prepare our students for employment, for further study, and for life after college."
Important to the success of any course on writing is the anthology of writings used as a model for students. Here, the Abbey has made yet another significant change. It has replaced anthologies with titles like "Making Literature Matter" and "The Writer's Presence" with an inspired "new/old" anthology of its own, "The Belmont Abbey College Reader," edited by Dr. Angela Miss. Abbey students encounter Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave," Demosthenes' "The First Philippic (Oration IV)", Cicero's "In Defense of Titus Annius Milo," selections from Aesop's "Fables," and excerpts from St. Augustine's "The City of God" – along with poems by Byron, stories by Flannery O'Connor, the speeches of Winston Churchill, and the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and others.
Furthermore, our dedicated faculty go the extra mile to help each student, and they offer encouragement.
Some will say that our core curriculum "turns the clock back." Perhaps, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, "We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
Edward Jones is the marketing director at Belmont Abbey College and editor of the College's alumni magazine, "Crossroads."
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