We were once discussing the Core Curriculum in a faculty meeting when Dr. John Alvis, always a clear-headed thinker who pierced to the heart of every question, stood up and said, “There are only two questions of a liberal education: ‘What is the nature of reality?’ and ‘How should a life be lived?’” I, new to my faculty position at UD, responded with, “If that is so, those should be the only two questions on the final exam of every Core class.”
My colleagues all laughed at me.
“No, really,” I said, warming to my own silly idea. “Imagine what it would be like if, as a student entered every Core class, she knew that those would be the only two questions on the final exam. You’d get some halting answers from the freshmen” — more laughter — “but by the time they were juniors and seniors they’d be lying in wait for it, and be starting to put together their education in new ways.”
I still think it was a good idea, because I think Dr. Alvis was right. Here at UD, our Core is not a mere collection of courses: It is, as Dr. Scott Crider calls it, “equipment for living.” And unlike at other schools, it is not merely a march through history, where one studies the Greeks one semester, the Romans the next, etc. There is admittedly some of that, and our students end with a pretty darned good sense of the history of Western civilization, of Christianity, of thought in the West — but it’s not in one chronological march. Instead, we loop through the ages, revisiting eras and texts and questions. It can be difficult to see where it is all going, or how to put it all together, but Dr. Alvis’ two questions helped crystallize the point of the Core for me.
It's about understanding the nature of reality … and from that, figuring out how to live one’s life.
The sciences in the Core teach us a great deal about the nature of physical reality — that’s what the sciences are for, what they are designed to do. But what is the nature of the reality of the human person? Are we just animals? Spirits trapped in a body? These are questions science cannot answer, so students take Philosophy, Literature, and more. What is the nature of the divine? What is a healthy community, a polis, a republic? Students need theology and political philosophy for those questions. Why is it part of human nature to desire the beautiful and to make beautiful things? For that we need poetry and the visual arts and music and architecture. And how do you put all of this together into a coherent vision of the nature of reality? The Core attempts to get students thinking about all this. And it gets students to start to see that the different disciplines get at the nature of reality from different viewpoints and have different strengths: the Chemist asks different questions, and examines different data, than the Psychologist or literary scholar does. Furthermore, each has its own limitations: you shouldn’t ask Physics to be able to address spiritual questions; it’s not designed for that.
And out of answering the first question, we fashion a response to the second question — how to live a life. If you think the nature of reality is just about things — materialism — then you probably fashion a life that says “He who dies with the most stuff wins.” And what a poverty that is. But if you have a view of the nature of reality that is richer — that includes, sure, atoms and molecules and quarks, but also community and spirituality and Vincent Van Gogh and justice as real, true, objective realities — then you are going to have a very different answer to the question, “How should a life be lived?”
I’ve actually tried my own silly idea, passing out final exams with only these two questions. Some of the younger students, frankly, have pretty awful answers. Most of them bring along the standard relativism of American culture: “The nature of reality is that we all create our own reality,” they write, or “Reality is what you make of it, and you just have to decide what you want.” I tend to write in the margins of these answers, “Really? So can I create a reality wherein my brother didn’t die of a glioblastoma at age 47? ’Cause I’d really like to see him again.” And strangely, their answers to the second question are not really in line with the first. One student wrote something like the above to the first question — "Reality is what you make of it, and everyone creates his own reality,” then wrote in answer to the second, “I am a faithful Catholic woman, and I try to live by its moral code.” I wrote in the margin of the second point, “But based on your first answer, why bother? The Church’s rules are kinda hard sometimes. Why not just make your own reality?”
So as I say, the first time you ask freshmen these questions, they tend to struggle, parroting ideas and phrases they have inherited from our popular culture. But what’s great to see is that, over the course of their time in the Core, they start to develop more and more thoughtful answers. Aristotle and Understanding the Bible and Dante and Jane Austen and Biology and Philosophy of the Human Person really do start to have their effect. They start to reflect on truth — that reality is real, and you can’t just fashion it into what you want it to be — and on justice, and on the nature of friendship and community … on tragedy and comedy … and they start to place all of this in the context of what and who they think God is, what their own souls are, and what they need to do to care for both.
So, for instance, my student Katharine Sharafinski wrote the following last semester on her Lit Trad IV final exam. She was describing the different officers (named Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) of the whaling ship Pequod in Moby-Dick:
Stubb, the second mate, is a fatalist. Rather than weigh his actions and those of the men around him carefully as Starbuck does, he resigns himself to the course of events without much conviction to influence anything. He is the moral intermediary between Starbuck and Flask, who possesses no awe for his work and seems to represent a low moral class that believes that nothing is sacred, and therefore that nothing holds meaning …
… We [at UD] learn how not to be a modern ‘Flask’ almost subconsciously. How can a student who has toured the corners of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Roman Forum be a Flask?
Or here is Spencer Magee, a paratrooper and Iraq war veteran, who lived in Seattle and struggled in that culture, then found his way to UD:
I came to this university by accident. It was a suggestion, but it gave me the words to articulate the horror I felt at an existence lived for pleasure alone … This is what my liberal education has given to me: examples of the good a man can do, small and great, and the terms by which I may name hazards to the good. In naming them, like Adam in the Garden, I can exercise a level of control over them.
Now, Dr. Alvis cautioned us that day, saying that no one can answer the two questions quickly: “It takes a lifetime to become liberally educated,” he said. As Ms. Sharafinski wrote later in that exam,
One beautiful thing I have grown in is the value of questions — the deep, soul-spoken desires and questions that manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. One can either attempt to bury these, or one can live them and ask them fully.
So perhaps the point is not for the UD Core to offer a final answer, but it shouldn’t just leave us with more questions. As Dr. Alvis added that day: “But any university that doesn’t give you a running start on addressing these questions ought to give you your money back.”
I’ll leave the last word again to another of my students from that semester, Beth Ann Arcement. Remember, this is just a junior, who probably came to UD as full of the nostrums of our relativistic culture as anyone else. Now, just six semesters later, she was capable of writing something like this:
I think that is where I am right now. I’m learning that I don’t have to have it all figured out by the time I graduate — and actually, I can’t. I’m not meant to. I think the whole point is to carry these [two] questions with me for the rest of my life, transforming the way I see people and places and things and events. The way I see God … if you’re not basing your reality and the way you live first and foremost on the Truth — God — then you’re doing it wrong. All in all, I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn, but I intend to keep doing so for the rest of my life.
That is what the Core can produce. That is what the Core is for: to get students to start thinking through the two questions, and to start them on the lifetime road of fastening themselves to Truth.