I want to tell two stories from my time teaching at other institutions, two tales that, in their negative valences, highlight what is for me one of the most powerful positive aspects of the Core Curriculum at UD, and balance them with two stories from my time at UD.
The first is a time when I was teaching a literature survey at a regional state university. Now, I had two superb students in this class, a young man and a young woman; frankly, they could have excelled at any school in the country. As we were talking about the assignment for the day, the young woman said, “Oh, that’s just like what happens in X” — another novel or poem, I can’t remember which. She and I had a few minutes of great discussion relating the two texts. But no one else in the class had read X, so they were excluded from the discussion. Literally five minutes later, the young man chimed in. “Oh, that makes me think of Y” — a different novel or poem. And he and I had a nice little exchange about that — but not even the well-read young woman knew what we were talking about.
I came to UD, and my first semester was teaching Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales. I made the point that Chaucer was engaging and challenging Ovid’s view of life in his collection of myths called The Metamorphoses. A student jumped in and said, “Oh, I see him basing this on Plato’s division of the soul into three parts.” Before I could even respond, another said, “Oh, no, this is more like what Shakespeare is doing with Prospero in The Tempest.” And the whole class was off, bringing in more texts and references, tangling with Chaucer and how he was tangling with the entire literary tradition, and what it means to be a woman, a human, in a world of change. I actually looked at the clock, and I didn’t — couldn’t — get a word in edgewise for well over 10 minutes.
Note what had happened. These students shared all of these texts; they had read them, and read them carefully and well, in my colleagues’ classes. The professors had taught them in different ways, with different emphases, but all were focused on reading these literary, philosophical, theological, and other texts to come to grips with what it means to be human. They could share, and discuss, and dispute, about these questions and problems, on a very high level, because they shared those texts.
The other negative example comes from the first job I had, teaching at a small “liberal arts” college in the Midwest. A student was talking to me after class one afternoon, probing me for further explanations, posing interesting questions about what we had discussed in class. Suddenly I looked at my watch. “Oh, I’m sorry; I have to run. I promised my wife I’d be home at this time.” And then I said, thinking of my UD experience and gesturing down the hill to the dorms, “But I’m sure you guys will talk about all this down there, right?” Immediately the student’s face fell. “Oh, Dr. Roper,” he said, “all of this stops the minute you walk down to the dorms.” Now it was my turn to be crestfallen. “Really? That’s what the dorms were for when I was a student.”
And this chimes with what my brother, who became a singer-songwriter in his 50s, said to me when he visited the Rome campus and hung out with all of us, family and students alike, for a week. I was unsure how this would go; my brother’s political and social views are considerably to the Left of most UD students’. But at the end of a week, he turned to me and said, “You know, Greg, because of what I do, I hang out in a lot of bars with college-aged kids. And I find,” he continued, “that I can only talk to them about two things: sports and pop music.” (This, incidentally, was exactly what the student in the previous story had said about dorm life: “All we can talk about down there is sports and pop music.”) My brother continued: “But here with your students I’ve had more varied, fascinating, and open discussions than I’ve ever had with kids their age. I’ve been talking about not just politics, but different political philosophies. They’ve actually read Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx. I’ve talked about art, literature, the sciences. It’s amazing what you have here.”
And UD students know this, and celebrate it. They love to argue; they love to discuss; they love the yak, the give and take, of a good debate about ideas, questions, philosophies. And they become friends in this way. They form friendships over this give and take — intellectual friendships, grounded not in the lower things of the body, of parties, of base desires, but through using what is highest in us — our minds, our intellects, our thoughts, our hearts.
But this can only happen when they have something in common to talk about — something higher, something that challenges and stimulates them to reach higher with their thoughts and ideas and questions. And it can’t happen when everyone is taking different classes, or when, even if, as at some schools, the “Gen Ed” classes’ titles sound similar, but the books and requirements are completely different. I’ve seen that situation in practice; I’ve seen how sad it is when students don’t have this common set of references to help them raise the level of their interactions with one another. Only with a Core, and a Core rooted in the greatest books, ideas, and questions of our civilization — rooted in the search for Truth — can the Biology major, the Economics major, and the Art major sit around on a Thursday evening and have this kind of conversation, this kind of sharing, and in that, share the best and highest in one another. And you know what? UD students do that, and do it quite often. That is what the Core provides; that is how the Core facilitates deep, rich, intellectual friendships. And these friendships can last for decades. In fact, it’s great to see an alum in her 50s interacting with a junior who is barely 20, and they are able to converse in this world of friendship because they share this experience of the Core.
It is amazing what we have here. And that is another of the reasons I treasure the Core.