The Reading List for Every Educated Person (and Core vs. Open Curriculums)

Every March, it seems, David Brooks issues his college / education advice to "students" (really their NYT reading parents). Today, Brooks offers his pity to Harvard students and advocates a broad, liberal arts foundation essential for every educated person. In going through the college process, I’ve encountered many interesting approaches to education, most of which I disagree with! Generally, there are two main schools of thought: one is a based on a core curriculum and one is based on student flexibility to construct a highly personalized course load. The core curriculum folks — most famously the U of Chicago and Columbia University — say that not all knowledge is equal. They consult the classics. They say it’s as critical for biology majors to know about philosophy as it is for English majors to know math. The open curriculum folks — most famously Brown University and Amherst College — argue that students need to be engaged in their intellectual development and courses should respond to their itches.

I’m not on one side of the fence, since both have their strengths. Brooks, being a University of Chicago alumnus, concurs with Peter Beinhart’s piece (which I blogged last week) that some Harvard students — and anyone from an open curriculum school, really — can end up "without the kind of core knowledge that you’d expect from a good high school student," and required courses can be "a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all."

Here’s what Brooks says every educated person must read, regardless of college, but especially if you go to a core curriculum school:

  1. "Reinhold Niebuhr. Religion is a crucial driving force of this century, and Niebuhr is the wisest guide."
  2. Read Plato’s "Gorgias." As Robert George of Princeton observes, "The explicit point of the dialogue is to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy (the quest for wisdom and truth) to rhetoric (the art of persuasion in the cause of victory). At a deeper level, it teaches that the worldly honors that one may win by being a good speaker … can all too easily erode one’s devotion to truth — a devotion that is critical to our integrity as persons. So rhetorical skills are dangerous, potentially soul-imperiling, gifts."
  3. Take a course on ancient Greece. For 2,500 years, educators knew that the core of their mission was to bring students into contact with heroes like Pericles, Socrates and Leonidas. "No habit is so important to acquire," Aristotle wrote, as the ability "to delight in fine characters and noble actions." Alfred North Whitehead agreed, saying, "Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness."
    That core educational principle was abandoned about a generation ago, during a spasm of radical egalitarianism. And once that principle was lost, the entire coherence of higher education was lost with it. So now you’ve got to find your own ways to learn about history’s heroes, the figures who will serve as models to emulate and who will provide you with standards to use to measure your own conduct. Remember, as the British educator Richard Livingstone once wrote, "One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal."

  4. Learn a foreign language.
  5. Spend a year abroad. "All evidence suggests this, more than any other, is a transforming experience for students that lasts a lifetime."
  6. Take a course in neuroscience. (ie – this is going to be big!)
  7. Take statistics.
  8. Forget about your career for once in your life…You’ve got to burst out of that narrow careerist mentality. Of course, it will be hard when you’re surrounded by so many narrow careerist professors building their little subdisciplinary empires.
5 comments on “The Reading List for Every Educated Person (and Core vs. Open Curriculums)
  • Hmmm, not sure if I agree with all of Brooks’ choices. I think that it’s critical that people have a shared understanding of the great works of civilization. I don’t mind expanding the canon so that we supplement “The Iliad” with “The Ramayana” or “Dream of Red Chambers,” but it is critical that people share a common set of cultural references beyond American Idol.

    To some extent, I think Brooks is just showing off. I’ve studied Plato in three or four different courses, and I’ve never read “Gorgias” (though I will now!).

    But a core curriculum must be supplemented with the ability for people to follow their own interests.

    And don’t get me started on the need to teach in a relevant way. Many professors could learn a lot from the pastors of today’s megachurches. Students should never feel that their classes aren’t relevant to their lives.

  • Great post Ben. There are a few things on that list that I plan on doing.

    Also, I read the article about you on – good work. Keep at it.

    In any case, the battling of philosophy vs. rhetoric is an interesting match up. Perhaps more politicians should take up the philosophy side of it, huh?

  • Chris – Obviously the best of both worlds would be ideal, but that’s tough.

    Relevance is a big question — I tend to agree with you, but I also think that some knowledge is worth learning even if it’s isn’t “relevant” / applicable right away. There are many academics who think the fuss about relevance and action-oriented learning is just another sign of our consumerist culture.

  • I’m all about interdisciplinary studies and systems theory. It’s not just having the broad spectrum, but drumming up the interconnections. The doctorate of Sustainable Development at Columbia is a fine example of interdisciplinarity.

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