For many years, there has been considerable angst over the severe decline in the study of the humanities in American higher education. This decline has been particularly precipitous since the mid-1960s and, in fact, studies show that bachelor’s degree completions in the humanities nationwide declined from 14% of the total of all degrees in 1966 to just 7% in 2010. The reasons are several, not least of which has been the drift in the core curriculum so well noted by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic, The Closing of the American Mind, compounded more recently by the accelerated emphasis on vocational grounding in the curriculum and the pressure for more faculty research productivity, particularly in the larger public research institutions.
In the midst of these problems and trends in the liberal arts, there are a few bright spots around the country, and one of them is at The University of Texas at Austin, where, under the leadership of Tom and Lorraine Pangle, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas, on whose Advisory Committee I serve, is providing a refreshing alternative and an island of excellence for students who want much more meaningful foundational grounding in the core curriculum, regardless of their major course of study.
Founded six years ago to foster a restoration of the Western intellectual tradition to the core curriculum at UT, the Center offers all students the opportunity to meet six of their fourteen course university-wide core requirements through a coherent, rigorous sequence of six courses in the great books and ideas that have shaped Western Civilization. These courses take students through a close study of the Bible and other foundational religious texts; major works of literature and philosophy from ancient Greece; the history of political thought from ancient times to the present, including the original proponents and major critics of modern liberalism; and the founding documents and principles of the American Republic.
Recently, the Center has launched its Jefferson Scholars Program, which will offer to exceptionally motivated freshmen and sophomores the opportunity to study these texts in small classes providing access to leading faculty and lively interaction with their peers. The response to this offering has been overwhelming across a range of majors from business to engineering to the natural sciences to the liberal arts and, in fact, is oversubscribed, which is a good problem to have and reflects the hunger for this kind of meaningful content. Here is a sample letter from among similar ones from almost 500 applicants:
“I would like to be in this program because as a person I want to be more insightful. I want to learn things in college that I can take with me throughout life, things that cannot be measured by a piece of paper. I feel that this program will allow me the opportunity to learn more about myself and humanity from some of the people who have had the greatest influence on humanity. I want my life to be one spent learning and growing. Through the Jefferson Scholars Program I know that I can develop skills that will prove invaluable for the rest of my life.”
There is much more to be done, but this is a very good start at the state’s flagship, and the University’s president, provost, and dean of liberal arts are to be commended for their support of this initiative.