The Core

August 24, 2009

In a week’s time I move into my new apartment and begin the newest semester of college, this being my junior year. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the education I received my first two years at the University of Dallas, and the defining characteristic of that education: the Core. Prepare for a mild degree of ranting.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I’ll briefly describe the courses UD’s Core (the list of those required of all students) includes (for a total of 21 classes):

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • “Fundamentals of Economics”
  • “Principles of American Politics”
  • Two science classes, one “life science” and one “physical science”
  • A math class and a fine arts class (for whatever reason these are listed together)
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

This is a fairly large list of courses; they’re usually finished by the end of a student’s sophomore year. I’m done with all of it except the foreign language, due to taking German Elementary I & II my freshman year and then not taking any languages last year (I blame Rome).

In general I think it’s a good program, but I have a number of complaints with it. For the most part, they boil down to, “either force students to take this subject seriously, or take it out of the Core”.

Complaint #1: The math and science classes in the Core are, for the non-math-or-science major, a joke. The problem is that, while the courses in English, Philosophy, Theology, and History all serve as a good introduction to the subject for someone wanting to major in those subjects, no math major will ever take “Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries” (the course non-math-and-science majors always take), instead they’ll take Calculus I&II (if they haven’t already), then Linear Point Set Theory, and go from there. No biology major will ever take the class known colloquially as “baby bio”, instead they’ll take Gen Bio I, and then Gen Bio II. Et cetera.

This results in the majors not taking the core courses, but jumping right into the actual subject matter, while the core courses are taught be people who don’t want to teach them to classes composed of people who don’t want to take them and study the subject to so little depth that it might as well not be studied at all. My solution? Sadly, unless the school could bring itself to start demanding that its entire student body learn calculus (which I don’t expect to happen, though I don’t see why it shouldn’t; for some reason calculus is seen as too difficult for fine arts majors), I think the best thing to do would be to cut out the math and science requirements altogether. These are subjects that (ought to) have been taught to the students in high school already to at least the same level they’re learning about it at college. Why duplicate that effort?

Similarly, though Economics and Politics majors do take Fundamental of Economics and Principles of American Politics alongside non-major classmates, the politics core course seems to me to duplicate what’s taught in high school politics classes and the history classes that are part of the core, and the economics one is just as bad. I doubt there was any need for the majors to take the class before taking higher-level classes, and the non-majors in the class learned little from them.

Then there’s the Fine Arts course inexplicably lumped in with the math requirement. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this requirement is. To get any kind of decent grasp of art or music or in the Western tradition would require a multi-course sequence (and indeed, the core requirement is satisfied, when not by “Art and Architecture in Rome”, by a single course picked from these sequences). The requirement can also be satisfied by a single “History of Drama” course. This major requirement just seems bizarre to me, especially given how it can be satisfied by studying visual art OR music OR drama, a somewhat random collection unified only by not being purely language-based.

Is the goal to convey a history of “aesthetics” in general, and visual art, music, and drama, are all seen as equally good vehicles at doing this? If so, then just put more emphasis on views of aesthetics in the English classes, which already serve as a history of artistic development, but are currently restricted to language arts only, or in the History classes, which are already essentially history of intellectual thought and incorporate a good deal of aesthetic history. But why have a separate core requirement that can be fulfilled by any of a large number of courses that each give you only a snapshot of the history of the arts?

So if I made these changes to the Core, what we we be left with? It would look something like the following:

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel, and also talking about how the works of literature fit into broader aesthetic categories (“Romantic”, “Renaissance”, “Medieval”, etc)
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”, talking about not only political but also intellectual and aesthetic history
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

Total: 14 classes. Which is essentially a student’s freshman year, plus the semester they spend in Rome if they go. A reduced core, but one that still fulfills its purpose.

Bringing it down to 14 courses also gives some room for additional courses, if desired; for example, since “history” is now explicitly burdened with talking about intellectual and aesthetic history, rather than just political and economic history, a fifth history course might be desired. (“Explicitly” is in place of “implicitly” – history classes at UD already focus on intellectual and aesthetic history more so than anywhere else, this would just make it official.)

It is also a Core that is unapologetically unscientific. This is not ideal, I believe, but it better than being apologetically unscientific – better than pretending to include math and science, but actually not leading to any real study of those subjects except by those who are majoring in them. It would be possible to still include math and science in the Core, of course, but it would require a radical perspective shift; if you believe they ought to learn more than they already did in high school, then forcing them to learn calculus is the logical next step. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s pointless to force them to continue taking math classes.

So that’s my grand theory of what I would do to the Core if ever I were in charge of UD. I never will be, of course, which is why even if this plan is actually more harm than good, we’ll never know about it. But that’s the fun of wishful thinking, isn’t it – that there’s no consequences to poorly thought out wishes?


To Not Be An Academic

July 28, 2009

As you may have learned from previous posts on this blog, I am a math-English double major going into my junior year of college. The question now becomes, what do I plan to do with that degree? Both my parents are academics, so I’ve always assumed I’d go into academia; I’ve already concluded I’m not really interested in getting a PhD in math, but I’m still considering going for a PhD in English.

But then I read articles like this one and realize that prospect doesn’t really appeal to me either. Why would I want to spend all of my time writing literary criticism no one will ever read of works that have already been critiqued to death?

I would like, of course, to become a professional writer (of fiction, that is). (Wouldn’t everybody?) But that would be quite difficult, and I need some way to feed and clothe myself until when (if) I can support myself through writing alone; since that’s kind of unlikely to ever happen, it’d be great if I actually enjoyed whatever it is I would be getting paid to do.

Ah, the woes of the liberal-arts student.

The New Encyclical

July 7, 2009

I haven’t read Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate yet (and I’m not sure I will; I’m not a big encyclical reader, though perhaps I should be). But it doesn’t matter. I now know what the main lesson to be gleaned from it is, and rejoice, my friends, for it is a joyous one:


(Admittedly, based on that quotation the Pope is more interested in the health-care-related issues (e.g. drug companies charging popor Africans lots of money for AIDS medicine they have exclusive patents on), and he implicitly assumes there is an actual, though limited, “right to intellectual property”, but he’s certainly more reasonable on the issue than most music-and-movie-industry spokesmen.)

I Feel That

May 8, 2009

People should stop using the phrase “I feel that”/”I feel like” to mean “I think that”.

This is something I’ve noticed more and more over the last few months; people seem to think that making assertions about their beliefs and opinions is somehow offensive, but making assertions about their emotions is not. The idea being, I suppose, that we have control over our beliefs, and so if we think something that runs contrary to someone else’s beliefs, we are intentionally contradicting them, while we don’t have control over our emotions to nearly the same degree, so if we feel something differently from someone else, it’s not your fault and you’re not casting judgement on the other person anyway, you just feel differently.

In other words, it’s a kind of sickly relativism. And it really bugs me, because it signifies a larger shift away from rational debate. As soon as we start taking differences of opinion as personal insults, we lose the ability to reason with the opposition, and it all turns into a question of who’s more emotionally persuasive.

Ah well.

The Bard in the Mead-Hall

February 14, 2009

A few friends and I recently had an interesting discussion – what would our ideal earthly existence be like? It can’t be Heaven, but you can pick the landscape, the political nature of your city/town/whatever, your own occupation and political and social role, the architecture you want, even modify the laws of physics to some extent… so, what would I do with this opportunity?

After some discussion, it came out that my ideal existence could be summarized as being the bard in the mead-hall…

I’ll start with the landscape and weather. There’d be stark mountains, plains, a mysterious forest, and an ocean (but no beaches – just sheer cliffs of varying height everywhere). It would generally be cold, varying between a bit below freezing and, at the warmest, maybe 60 or 70 degrees. Mostly overcast, sometimes raining or snowing, rarely sunny (though not never). A northern climate. (Which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read what I have to say about heat vs. cold.)

On to the city itself. I’d pick a small community, just a few thousand, where I can know a sizable portion of the population and talk to whoever I wanted, but not really be obligated to talk to anyone. We’d all live in separate small, simple houses, kind of like the huts you’d see in medieval towns, but with indoor plumbing, and congregate in the communal feasting hall, one of the two large buildings in the town. The other, bigger one would be the library-cathedral, done in the Gothic style.

As to the political structure of this town; it’d be basically feudalistic, I guess, but the main feature is that it is in constant war with a neighboring and extremely evil city, or perhaps monster (which would make this even more like Heorot Hall from Beowulf). Why do we need to be fighting? Because otherwise life would get boring. Remember, this is not Heaven. Eternal existence in an earthly paradise with nothing to try to accomplish, but with mankind still fallen, would, I think, not be very paradisaical. We need something to struggle for – what better way than to have an undeniably evil enemy to fight against? The stories of the war would be told in the feasting hall, everyone would fight and so have some experience of something grander than themselves… but the war would always stay distant enough not to threaten the town itself.

But what would I do in this town? I certainly wouldn’t want to be the king or a warrior or anything like that. I considered being just one of the intellectual class (which there would be – even if everyone is educated, not everyone is equally intelligent), but I realized that wouldn’t really satisfy me. It’d be too boring; again, there’d be nothing to fight for, or rather nothing to really try to accomplish. I’d rather be a bard, composing and singing tales in the mead-hall. Then I could have a goal – write something great. Much more interesting.

This hypothetical paradise is supposed to include other personal stuff, so I guess I’ll include that too; I’d be married, I guess, to someone much nicer and more social than I am (that’s almost necessarily true for me, of course), and probably have kids too. Oh, and there’d be a bunch of pet wolves in this town, and I’d have at least one. I considered taking a super-power like flying or something, but then realized that actually sounds kind of boring. I’d rather have basically what I describe above.

This is an interesting exercise because it gives the audience a view into both your personality, and your world-view – and shows how much the two are intertwined. I’d choose to be the bard in the mead-hall because that’s what suits my personality the best – but it suits me the best because of my views on the nature and significance of literature.

Try it yourself – it might help you figure something out. I didn’t realize that my town needed to be at war with something evil until constructing it with the assumption that it would be at peace and realizing that it wouldn’t work.

The Land of the Ice and Snow

November 11, 2008

This last weekend, I went to Stockholm, in Sweden, leaving on Friday and returning early Sunday morning.

Now, I went to Stockholm just because it’s in Scandinavia, and I wanted to go somewhere in Scandinavia before the semester ended. I bought the tickets back in September, but didn’t do any research whatsoever before going, and so had no idea what to expect. I was prepared to be disappointed.

It turns out, though, that Stockholm is simply a stunning city visually. The mood of the city was set by its beautiful blondes in somber black clothing walking amidst multi-colored ancient apartment buildings as if the two went naturally together. This fit perfectly with the weather, which was chilly but not cold, and very slightly overcast). There was also natural beauty; walking along the harbor was amazing, and some of the islands (like Kastellholmen) were a mix of rocky and grassy parkland and quaint-looking 18th-/19th-century “castles” and churches.

So it was a lot of fun to just walk around the city, and I did that a decent amount. This is one of my favorite things to do in new cities, after all; when I was alone in Cologne for eight hours over ten-day I just wandered around aimlessly for at least two or three of them. I think Stockholm is one of the best cities I’ve been in for simply wandering around for aesthetic pleasure.

But my other favorite thing to do is to go into random churches, and at this, Stockholm failed. There were very few churches – well, fewer than in, say, Rome or Munich – and those that there were, were Lutheran. Going into Lutheran churches does not particularly interest me.

This was, of course, expected. I knew Scandinavia was mostly agnostic, and nominally Lutheran not Catholic. But it was still disappointing, in a sense; I could not help but imagine how awesome Stockholm would have been if it had had this going for it as well. If Stockholm had been Catholic, I think it might have been my favorite city in Europe so far.

But that is just wishful thinking. Obviously Stockholm is not going to turn Catholic any time soon. That leaves me seeing Stockholm, and thus all of Scandinavia, in a wishful light; it was amazing, but it could have been more, so much more.


April 8, 2008

As you may recall from last year, I’m a baseball fan and during the regular season I occasionally talk about the Texas Rangers (my home-town team) and how their season’s going. And now the 2008 baseball season has begun.

I’m going to the game against the Baltimore Orioles tomorrow night, incidentally.

So far this season the Rangers are 3-4 (3 wins, 4 losses). That’s not exactly good, but not horrible either. It’s still early in the season. There’s hope. There’s…

Hell, no there’s not. The problem is the Rangers sucked last year and have done very little to improve. Their starting pitching situation has not improved (the new pitcher, Jason Jennings, had an ERA over 6 last season, and everyone else is pretty much the same), the major acquisition in the Mark Teixeira trade, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, isn’t even starting, the outfield is still pretty much in shambles and Marlon Byrd can’t be expected to produce at last year’s level, etc etc… I believe Jon Daniels, the general manager, has even said that they’re currently “rebuilding” and don’t plan on being competitive until 2010.

The person who really got screwed over in all of this is Michael Young. He signed an extension to his contract a year ago on the understanding that we would be competitive now. Instead we’re back in rebuilding mode, just like we have been for the last seven years. He could have gone somewhere else for good money and actually been on a winning team.

This is the Rangers’ basic problem – they have some good players, but not enough to build a team out of, and the ownership/management is completely inept. So as a fan, you find yourself liking the players, but really frustrated with the team as a whole.

I really wish Tom Hicks would sell the team…

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