Comments on the Core

by Dr. Douglas Kries
October 14, 2013

In the context of Catholic universities in the United States, “the core” refers to what is left in the undergraduate curriculum of the once grand and extensive curriculum of the Catholic intellectual tradition. In the context of Jesuit Universities in the United States, “the core” refers to what is left of the Jesuit iteration of the Catholic curriculum—an iteration once known as the ratio studiorum. The traditional Catholic curriculum featured significant training in literary arts, followed soon by the study of mathematics and subjects based on mathematics. Then came philosophy, including the study of nature and of ethics, with theology at the pinnacle. The overarching goal of the enterprise was to form young Catholic minds by showing them how to integrate the demands of both faith and reason within their own souls.    
When the Jesuits came to the United States, they introduced a second goal, for it was thought necessary to prepare Catholic immigrants to participate in the economic structure of the nation. This meant that the old ratio studiorum had to be condensed in order to make room for the job preparation part of the undergraduate degree. What was left of the ratio eventually came to be known as “the core.” These two curricular programs were not arranged so that the students completed the core as preparation for the “real” purpose of the curriculum, the major that would permit one to enter to workplace. If anything, many of the core courses, particularly those in philosophy, were reserved for the latter part of the student’s formation.
As the decades have passed, the original intent of the Jesuit core has been turned first to one and then to another alien purpose. Sometimes the core has been asked to serve as “preparation” for allegedly more important matters, or even as “distribution requirements.” In contemporary times, the core has often been used to persuade students to embrace certain interpretations of the demands of social justice, and now it is becoming increasingly fashionable to use the core to promote “global engagement.” Gonzaga University has participated in the decline of the study of the Catholic intellectual tradition along with the other Jesuit schools, but not so rapidly as most. Although GU requires relatively little in terms of mathematics and literature and instead assumes that students have received significant training in such disciplines at the secondary school level, at present all students still complete four courses in philosophy and three in religious studies. The philosophy courses are critical thinking (an elementary course in logic), human nature (philosophical anthropology), ethics, and a 400-level elective course. The 100-level course in religious studies is devoted to the Bible, the 200-level course to Christianity, and the 300-level course to an application in such areas as moral teachings or Christian spirituality.
The current situation at Gonzaga is poised to change rather dramatically, though. Although the University has been discussing alterations to the structure of its core for many years, the most current proposal to have received public discussion by the faculty seems to be approaching final approval.
If approved without alternation, the new plan would drop the fourth philosophy course in favor of an interdisciplinary course that is “project-based.” This change would mark the final step in removing the study of God from the philosophy core. Until approximately thirty years ago, the fourth philosophy course was devoted to metaphysics, including especially the philosophical study of God. The fourth course then became a 400-level elective philosophy course; most of the choices did not pertain to the philosophy of God, but a few did, for a few philosophy faculty developed courses in topics such as Faith and Reason, C. S. Lewis, Christianity and Modern Science, Christian Metaphysics, and the Philosophy of St. Augustine. The Faith and Reason course was developed by philosophy faculty in conjunction with Fr. Spitzer soon after he came to Gonzaga as President.
The current proposal would also change the religious studies curriculum rather thoroughly. The 100-level Bible course would no longer be required, and neither would the 300-level applications course. Indeed, there would be no required 100-level religion course in the new curriculum, and the new 300-level course would be in “Comparative Religions or World Religions.” This course would also be designated as “global studies,” which receives emphasis in the new curriculum. The new 200-level religion course would be in “Catholic Religion or Christian Religion,” and would have as one of its themes “social justice.” The upshot is that students graduating from GU would not necessarily have taken any courses in Catholicism; they would be required to take only one course in Christianity generally.
It is widely claimed that the current GU core curriculum has fallen into desuetude, although no examination of the current core has ever been conducted that reaches such a conclusion. It would not be surprising, though, if that were the case, for few faculty and administrators at the University know much about the traditional Catholic curriculum or the ratio studiorum of the Society of Jesus. Most faculty and administrators at Gonzaga were trained at secular colleges and universities, and few Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States prepare students in the traditional Catholic curriculum anyway. So, since those teaching in the Gonzaga core today rarely have much training in what it was originally supposed to be, it would not be surprising if the present core functioned poorly.
It is rather astonishing, though, to watch Gonzaga University move toward jettisoning so much of what was left of its Catholic, Jesuit curriculum. When the structure of the older curriculum was still in place, one could always harbor the hope that maybe someday the University would be able to live up to its heritage. Without the organized study of themes pertaining to philosophy of God in the philosophy core curriculum, however, and with at most one course in Catholicism in the religious studies core curriculum, it is hard to envision a future for Gonzaga that could be called “Catholic” or “Jesuit” in any meaningful sense. Indeed, if the new plan is approved, our “one course Catholics” will be devoting only three out of 128 credits to the study of the “Catholic or Christian religion.” That’s about 2.34 percent of a student’s total curriculum of study. 

Dr. Douglas Kries is the Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J.,  Professor of Christian Philosophy at Gonzaga University.

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