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Volume 2, No. 1:

Interview with Stanley Rosen
The Resurrection of Hell

Madonna, Harlot & Modern Woman
Lessons of Kosovo

The Big C
Role of Philosophy in 21C Education
On Holiness and Responsibility
Zen & the Art of Teaching
Language as the Translation of Being
Core Curriculum & Diversity
A Letter from Morocco


Core Curriculum And Diversity

Joseph P. Lawrence

This talk was delivered at Seattle University at a conference on "Jesuit Core Education: Future Challenges" in March 2000.

Let me begin by acknowledging an irony. I am here as a representative of Holy Cross College, giving a talk on "Core Curriculum and Diversity." The irony is that Holy Cross has no core curriculum – and remarkably little diversity. In my mind, these two moments are not unrelated. But before showing the connection, I should make it clear that I am talking about more than the fact that Holy Cross has fewer students than it would like from certain targeted groups, such as foreign exchange students and Native-, African-, Latino-, and Asian Americans. The real issue of diversity lies more than "skin-deep."

This is a significant statement given that our standard markers for diversity – race, social class, and ethnic culture – all manifest themselves externally. One sees the color of the skin, the make of the clothes; one hears the specific accent, characteristic speech patterns, tones and rhythms. On the face of it, diversity is a matter of appearance only, an all-too appropriate issue for an age that revolves around the various public media and the economic marketplace. I am thinking, for instance, of the marketing brochures sent out by the generic college admissions office – the ones with glossy pictures of smiling young faces; half male, half female; 30% white, 30% black, 20% brown – and 20% "other."

Thought of in this way, diversity has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of core curriculum – or else it impacts upon it in a merely cosmetic way. An example of such a cosmetic impact upon the core is the addition to it of courses that belong to programs like Women’s or African-American Studies, but are of dubious value to a core curriculum that is supposed to constitute the vital trunk of the great tree of knowledge. So too, the shift from a "Western Culture" to a "World Culture" focus. I call even this a cosmetic matter, because reading world literature in small samples – and in translation – will not accomplish much more towards "opening the mind to the other" than would be accomplished by arranging field trips to a local Chinese or Thai restaurant. Indeed, it should be clear that old-fashioned language requirements achieve more for facilitating real diversity than any of our contemporary "birds-eye-perspective" surveys of "everything that is out there" could ever do.

I would say much the same thing were one to emphasize the importance of providing students with "all the information they might need" for dealing with the complexities of the emerging global community. "More information" is the last thing we need. Collectively, we are drowning in information. The electronic media present us with more than we are able to process. Instead of making us more awake and alive, the steady barrage of information makes us grow tranquil and numb, like a child who has watched too much television. Having seen it all, we find ourselves impressed by nothing whatsoever. Information overload is a device for stultifying diversity, not for cultivating and nourishing it.

What we need is not more information, but more sensitivity and thought. Because critical reflection is so important, we can hardly accomplish an education in diversity by self-consciously responding to the external command that we all take up diversity as the issue of the day. The only true education in diversity is the one that frees us (both teachers and students) from the tyranny of "let’s all think alike." Such education towards freedom is philosophical, not philosophical in the sense of "what they do in the department of philosophy," but philosophical in the sense of the word itself.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. It is emphatically not the ownership of wisdom, for wisdom (which I might define as the love of reality) is notoriously elusive for suffering humanity. As a result of that elusiveness (the apparent impossibility of loving a reality that insists upon presenting itself as a chamber of horrors), philosophy can only unfold in the form of a dialogue. Discourse about meaning and value is inevitably permeated by ambiguity and uncertainty.

This, perennially the case, is even more explicitly the case in our present situation. Cultural differences are no longer what simply define our community against the rest of the world. They have become internal to the community itself. The self-righteous assurance, for instance, that "I am a good Catholic" (or a good Muslim or a good whatever) is not as easy as it once was, when communities were relatively insulated from the outside world. It is, of course, true that diverse groups have very often lived in close physical proximity to one another. But in the traditional framework this only served to reinforce the "insider-outsider" distinction that provided communities with a clear sense of identity.

What is different today is that the outside actively impinges upon the inside. The new family altar springs electronically to life with visual images that undermine any sense of community identity. On the face of it, these images might appear to represent an emergent global culture that constitutes a generous patchwork of already existent cultures. In other words, we seem to have at our disposal more culture than ever before.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. For the global culture is something very specific. It is the culture of the marketplace, a kind of anti-culture that offers gratification for precisely those kinds of desires that traditional cultures have always tried to restrain. Indeed, the antithesis is even sharper than this. For the market has gone beyond the gratification of desire. Through advertising, it seeks to manufacture desire and multiply it without limit. Traditional cultures are consequently defined less by the differences that separate them from one another than by the one difference that separates culture as such from the anti-culture of the marketplace.

It would be easy to depict the encroachment of the values of the marketplace on the sphere of culture in purely negative terms. We find, for instance, that the tradition that gave rise to the Jesuit College is itself deeply threatened. For the purposes of this talk, however, it seems more productive to focus on the positive consequences of the development. First of all, because all cultures experience the same threat, a common sense of purpose can dissolve the divisions that traditionally separated Catholics from Protestants, Christians from Moslems and Jews, and Western religion from Eastern religion. For religions that, motivated by a profound sense of compassion for suffering humanity, seek to operate within a world, rather than a tribal, horizon, this contribution to ecumenical dialogue can only be received with the utmost enthusiasm.

More important in the context of my talk, however, is that this global coming together of deeply opposed traditions constitutes a tremendous opportunity for the renewal of thinking and understanding. For the uncertainty that has always surrounded issues of value and truth is now undergoing a profound intensification. This will be felt most forcefully in the religiously affiliated institution.

Elsewhere, it may not be felt at all. For the ideology of the marketplace seduces us with a new sense of self-evidence. What, after all, could be better than being given license to pursue all of our desires? Why should questions of truth deter us when reality itself has become "virtual"? The self-assured self-evidence of all of this seems great enough to win out over everything. Yet it is just as quickly revealed as delusional in the face of the continued reality of suffering and the always-looming possibility of death. Religion may be marginalized in the new world order, but its ground and condition has hardly been eradicated. Behind the Hollywood façade, reality presses upon us.

The new uncertainty, unsettling as it is, brings us closer than ever before to the source and spirit of philosophy. Recognizing this would bring us to the threshold of an intellectual awakening. Crossing that threshold is another matter. What it requires is that we stand face to face with what palpably makes us nervous: the very fact of uncertainty and ambiguity. And with this fact, the corresponding fact that, despite our "shopping in the same Mall" similarity, we are all profoundly different and have profoundly different ideas about what is really important in life. To face these facts would be to face our differences, dispensing with our all-too-simple and seductive "agreement to disagree."

I should emphasize once again that when I speak in this context of the spirit of philosophy, I am not referring to the academic discipline that goes by that name. Instead, I am referring to philosophy as what forms the root of every discipline, evident, for instance, when the biologist suddenly has to leave off doing biology, in order to reflect and wonder: "What, in all truth, is life anyway? Is it really nothing but a chemical process? Are the assumptions made by my discipline true assumptions or do biologists hold by them merely because they are so successful in helping us penetrate into (generally for the sake of manipulation) the mechanical framework that constitutes the dead skeleton of life?"

Where questions like these emerge, where the settled becomes unsettled, we are on the way to true diversity. To do productive work within a discipline, one has to submit to its rules and conventions. True creativity requires something different, however, than the passive submission to external form that is the key to scholarly "productivity." Creative work unfolds not so much "within" a discipline (where everything is clear and certain), but out of a confrontation with the floating borders of the discipline.

In truth, creative expression is the language of the heart. It emerges where one stumbles upon the unique voice of the self, a voice that is silenced wherever the self has taken refuge in social convention, political ideologies, or academic disciplines. To foster diversity is to foster the emergence of the authentic self. It cannot be accomplished within the framework of the established disciplines. It is this problem that necessitates a discussion of core curriculum, that is to say, curriculum that unfolds in the originative dimension of questions rather than answers.

Before going on, let me gather this together into a decisive claim about the proper focus of a core curriculum. Because the orientation towards questions of meaning and value conflicts with the empirical and value-free orientation of the disciplines (insofar as their smooth functioning requires them to regard foundational issues as if they were "resolved"), and because the orientation towards meaning lies at the basis of all truly liberal education, it becomes necessary to establish a core curriculum as a stronghold outside of the disciplines. It is this outsider status that makes a core curriculum ideal, not for "talking about diversity issues," but for actually realizing diversity. In the dimension of the unsettled and the uncertain, we face the ongoing possibility of radical transformation. Released from the self-certainty with which pre-packaged "ways of life" are presented to us, we are brought into the painful process of finding out who we ourselves really are. Only after that release into authenticity is accomplished, can one hope to find the form of disciplined learning that is appropriate to one’s own individual intellectual and spiritual needs.

Within the framework of the particular disciplines, the ideal form of discourse is one that is calm and dispassionate. Giving oneself over to a shared understanding of what is important permits one to engage in a kind ethos of rationality that centers on consensus and common purpose. Complementing this model with a philosophically oriented core assures that a full diversity of voices can be interwoven into a community that, dynamically alive, is always in the process of emerging. Intellectual vibrancy in which even the most self-evident assertion can be freely challenged is the mark of the living Academy.

While I recognize that an important condition of diversity is that as many cultural traditions as possible be actively represented on campus, I do not think it can be fully realized until all participants are invited to actively question their own worldviews as a precondition for entering the common quest for truth. Simple representation is never enough. Full diversity will not blossom without the explicit invitation to self-transcendence that is the direct consequence of the philosophical quest for truth. Only where we are serious about truth, do we have an incentive to listen to one another. Where we capitulate to cynicism by permitting our conception of truth to melt into the diverse field of opinions and fictions with which we humans seek to hold reality at bay, we destroy genuine diversity at its root.

Education must not succumb to such nihilism. The economic marketplace may welcome "truths" that, as images and fabrications, have no need to defend themselves, no need to do anything but to stimulate a sizable corner of the market. To reduce fundamental human outlooks to this level is to put an end to the conversation between human spirits. Worldviews atrophy where they are simply "celebrated." To take them seriously is to insist that they justify themselves intellectually and philosophically.

Diversity cannot be achieved by political mandate. Its deepest requirement is that we have the courage to think for ourselves. Courage is the transcendence of our dog-like fear of strangers, the accomplishment of the greatest possible openness to reality. It cannot be commanded. Ultimately it is to be attained only by attaining a positive relationship to transcendence as such. In plain English, the fear of death has to be overcome. This is a spiritual and philosophical project. Until we get to the end of it, our incessant battle with our "enemies" will go on unchanged. Changing the world is to no avail until we have finally changed ourselves.

Diversity is about authenticity and truth. Our institutions have an obligation to recruit faculty and students from a wide variety of backgrounds, inhabiting a wide variety of worldviews. This in itself provides, however, no more than an important pre-condition of diversity. Its actual achievement is the goal of a liberal arts education, one that is philosophically grounded and passionately committed to the flourishing of the intellectual life. To foster diversity through a core curriculum is to deliver the rudiments of a philosophical education to as wide a group of people as possible.


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Diotima Department of Philosophy, Holy Cross