To the Editor:
I share with Howard Gardner the wish that more colleges would engage all students in “inspiring and motivating . . . conversations” about “the Big Questions of Life” by introducing them to enduring philosophical writings (“Why We Should Require All Students to Take 2 Philosophy Courses,” The Chronicle, July 16). Despite the difficulty of reaching consensus about which questions and texts matter most, and despite other obstacles to making changes in the curriculum, this is not an impossible dream. In fact, a number of colleges are already doing just what Professor Gardner suggests.
At Columbia, where I teach, the Core Curriculum, through two year-long required courses in literature and political philosophy, compels all college students to read, discuss, and argue with such thinkers as Plato, Locke, Shakespeare, Marx, Woolf, and DuBois, who raise fundamental questions about morality, individual responsibility, and how a good society should be organized.
While Professor Gardner suggests that only scholars trained in philosophy should teach the “Big Questions” course, in fact at most institutions, including Columbia, it would be impossible for teachers from any one department to do so for all students. Happily, teaching of this kind has great value for faculty from many departments who find intellectual refreshment in moving outside their specialty, across disciplines, and into conversation with one another. Required courses of this type also have the great benefit of giving students a shared intellectual experience, which helps to build a community in which students may engage one another in informed and civil debate about inescapable, and inevitably controversial, human questions.
The Teagle Foundation, where I have recently become president, supports a number of initiatives in this spirit that should please Professor Gardner and everyone who agrees with him. At Hostos Community College, a growing number of sections of the required introductory writing course are now organized around major philosophical texts. At Austin Community College, a voluntary “Great Questions” course is attracting strong student interest. At Ursinus College, the “Common Intellectual Experience” course, required of all first-year students and taught by faculty from throughout the college — including the natural sciences — is organized around such questions as “What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world?” At Purdue University, the “Cornerstone” program is enriching the lives of hundreds of students by introducing them to transformative texts from antiquity to modernity. And these are just a few of the innovative institutions where faculty and students have committed themselves to the kind of experience Professor Gardner commends.
As for the idea that students should conclude college with a similar course, this was an option at Columbia for many years, under the title “Colloquium”— a course through which some students returned as seniors to texts they had first encountered three years earlier and, by re-reading them, challenged themselves anew as they were about to go out into the world. Unfortunately, the Colloquium no longer exists — but perhaps it will make a comeback someday.
Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies