“A Texas-Sized Defeat for ‘Western Civilization’”

My college friend Rob Koons was putting together a concentration on “Western Civilization and American Institutions” at the University of Texas, but he got the plugged pulled on him in a manner that was not only unceremonious but also confused, contradictory, and educationally unwise.

He learned some lessons from the experience, including:

Our program was rightly perceived as a threat to the monopoly of what I call the Uncurriculum, which prevails at UT and at most universities today. It is the absence of required courses and of any structure or order to liberal studies. The Uncurriculum dictates that students accumulate courses that meet a “distribution” standard—a smattering of courses scattered among many categories. Even within majors, the trend has been to eliminate required sequences.

The perfecting of the intellect and the formation of character through the attainment of what John Henry Newman called “liberal knowledge” have given way to engorgement with miscellaneous information. The suggestion that higher education should have something to do with acquiring moral wisdom is invariably met with the sophomoric query, “Whose ethics?” As Anthony Kronman has so well documented in his book The End of Education, nothing in the Uncurriculum encourages students to think through the great questions of life in a systematic manner, with the great minds of the Western tradition as their guides and interlocutors.

The Uncurriculum free-for-all gives undergraduates only the illusion of choice. In reality, the Uncurriculum model is entwined with the interests of the professoriate. If there are no courses students are required to take, there are no courses that professors are required to teach.

Professors at research universities focus on the accumulation of prestige through publication, the indispensable means for acquiring tenure and increasing one’s salary (through the leverage of outside offers). By allowing students to pick what they want to study, the Uncurriculum model eliminates a potentially great distraction from the quest for publications: the burden of teaching a required curriculum, unrelated to one’s own narrow research agenda.

This is further evidence that something is wrong with the American university. I’ll have more to post on this early next week.

Hat Tip: Divine Conspiracy Blog

Comments 6
  1. Dave

    This is completely consistent with the trend I noted in the “Sam Harris” post. A trend which has attracted the attention of much better writers than I and from whom I learned about it. Here is something from Dorothy L. Sayers “Lost Tools of Learning” presented as a speech in 1947.

    Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?


    Of course, in Sayers’ time it hadn’t achieved the penetration it has today, but the signs were there for any who cared to look. As your friend notes in his article, most don’t care to look, in fact their interest is in preventing others from looking.

    Seriously, if I had children today I would think twice before consigning them to the tender mercies of modern “education”. Here’s another article. I can’t comment on the quality of the survey (my previous observation about “survey shows” reporting still stands), but based upon my own interaction with post secondary graduates, it can’t be too inaccurate.


  2. Tom Gilson

    Hi, Paul, long time no see!

    I’m wondering, what do all those course numbers represent? I’m not in a position to do that research right now. The bare number list provides no information with respect to whether this constitutes an Uncurriculum or not. The sheer number of options would tend to support the Uncurriculum view.

  3. Dave

    If you check out note 4 it seems to corroborate the uncurriculum.

    4 While it is recommended that students complete two courses from the same series, courses from more than one series may be combined to fulfill the natural science, part I, requirement. In all cases, the natural science, part I, requirement must be fulfilled by two courses from the same field of study.

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  5. Paul

    From http://registrar.utexas.edu/catalogs/ug08-10/ch12/ug08.cr12c.m-uts.html#mathematics-m

    Math 302 (TCCN: MATH 1332). Introduction to Mathematics. Intended primarily for general liberal arts students seeking knowledge of the nature of mathematics as well as training in mathematical thinking and problem solving. Topics include number theory and probability; additional topics are chosen by the instructor.

    Math 303D (TCCN: MATH 1324). Applicable Mathematics. An entry-level course for the nontechnical student, dealing with some of the techniques that allow mathematics to be applied to a variety of problems. Topics include linear and quadratic equations, systems of linear equations, matrices, probability, statistics, exponential and logarithmic functions, and mathematics of finance.

    Math 403K (TCCN: MATH 1425). Calculus I for Business and Economics. Differential and integral calculus of algebraic, logarithmic, and exponential functions with applications.

    I have a fairly narrow point here, only that the mere presence of a choice for students from selected classes doesn’t mean a lack of structure and order, an Uncurriculum. I see absolutely nothing wrong with offering the choices above in fulfillment of one of the *requirements* of graduating from UT.

    One might argue that students should, for instance, read Socrates before Amy Tan, and maybe that is part of Koons’ point, but it’s not good to get all complaints about a curriculum jumbled up, although if one gets fired, I can imagine a lot of jumbling is going to result.

    His comment about a trend away from required sequences in the major raises my eyebrows. Specifics would be interesting, I’d make a small bet that it’s not much of a trend, it would run counter to the vast majority of everything I’ve seen in my 25 years of teaching in universities.

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