A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum

by Mark C. Henrie ISI Books, $7.95 (US), 109 pages.As the role of the university is being debated in society, so too is the legitimacy of the liberal arts. At one point in our history, a liberal arts education was held in high regard, a mark of distinction that qualified a university graduate for an array of career possibilities. But in an age of powerful computers and cutting-edge technology, students are now eager to join the electronic revolution. And well they should be – a lack of proper knowledge in this field of study reduces the potential job market for most university graduates.

Still, does this mean that a liberal arts education is now irrelevant in the modern world? Not at all. It’s lost its way, to be sure, but this is primarily because the liberal arts have become, well, too liberal in its point of view. Thus, a ‘liberal’ liberal arts program in modern universities often strays from classical literature, history, and even religious studies. To keep the liberal arts alive in post-secondary education, we must turn our attention back to these rudimentary, yet important, courses on Western society.

Mark Henrie, the director of student development at the U.S.-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute, believes that an authentic liberal arts education is still within the realm of possibility. In his book A Student’s Guide to the Course Curriculum – part of a brilliant ISI series to get students motivated in the major disciplines – he argues that most American universities offer courses “that explore the central facets of the Western tradition and do so through an engagement with great texts.” Since students are able to take electives, there is a large amount of freedom of choice in academic coursework. But as Henrie notes, the “trick is to find them.”

The book outlines eight courses that students should seek out for a liberal arts education – classical literature, ancient philosophy, the Bible, Christian thought before 1500, political theory, Shakespeare, and 19th century European intellectual history. This will allow students to gain a better understanding and appreciation of everything from Plato to Machiavelli, from Christianity to Judaism. Henrie admits that his course list is not “entirely comprehensive,” but that “this do-it-yourself core curriculum does allow you to encounter much of the history of the West, and to do so from a variety of perspectives.”

One of the strongest components of A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum is the book list for each course. While these texts have been recommended for students by Henrie in case professors offer “politicized lectures” – something that left-wing academics are prone to do, believe it or not – they can also be used for other purposes. As the old saying goes, experience is the best teacher. And what better way to experience the liberal arts than to teach yourself about the great works of literature, politics, history and philosophy? Even if a university doesn’t offer a similar course, the core curriculum can be accomplished by one’s own reading.

In all, Henrie has written a strong book for university students who feel that they are losing out on an authentic liberal arts education. Even non-students might be intrigued to learn about new subjects or possibly recapture lost ideas. The process of learning is part of a never-ending sequence of events, much like the rebirth of the “conservative” liberal arts.