(Editor’s note: Ed Jones is the director of marketing at Belmont Abbey College, in Belmont, North Carolina, and the editor of the college’s alumni magazine, Crossroads.)
This semester, first-year students at Belmont Abbey College are being introduced to an exciting new core curriculum.
What’s new about it? Essentially nothing.
Which may explain why there's a "new springtime" of intellectual ferment blossoming on our 135-year-old campus. (The magazine First Things has named our school, located just west of Charlotte, America’s #1 “school on the rise, filled with excitement.”)
When they were creating the new core, the team of Abbey professors and administrators who crafted it—led by Dr. Carson Daly, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty—took to heart C.S. Lewis's impassioned admonitions to educators in his book The Abolition of Man.
Lewis said that the paramount duty of educators is not to subject students to all that is trendy, “progressive,” or “new” in education, but rather to pass on to them that which is transcendent and time-proven; that is to say, the hard-won, shared system of traditional values that has been handed down through the centuries.
Lewis called this shared system of values the Tao and he asserted that these are the fundamental truths that form and nourish man's core. Indeed, Lewis averred that abolishing these core objective truths from our curricula is tantamount to abolishing man.
Belmont Abbey College’s new core curriculum has been carefully structured to nourish and strengthen our students’ inner core with the traditional values that Lewis was defending. Thus, our new core might be thought of as an antidote to the abolition of man.
The required courses that comprise the new core curriculum (constituting 50 to 53 of the 120 hours needed to graduate) are the following:
Rhetoric I & II
Introduction to Scripture
Introduction to Theology
Classic Texts in Political Philosophy I & II
Western Civilization I & II
Literary Classics of the Western Tradition I & II
The U. S. Constitution
Two science courses with labs
An introductory course in psychology, sociology, or economics
We regard the whole core as important to the education of our students, giving them a broad grounding that few college students anywhere get today. Although there isn’t enough space here to go into detail about every part of our core, I’d like to explore several of the courses.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson once led an approving crowd of Stanford students (and some complicit faculty members) in the chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” If there were a chant for Belmont Abbey’s new/old core courses, it might go “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ sets minds aglow!”
In this two-part course, Abbey students savor Sir Kenneth Clark’s magisterial guided tour of Western history and art, Civilisation. Other key texts include The Mainstream of Civilization by Stanley Chodorow et al. and Western Civilization: Beyond Boundaries by Thomas F.X. Noble et al. Those texts are supplemented with historical novels to give students a feel for everyday life during certain periods. Throughout the course, students have to hone their critical thinking and rhetorical skills through written and oral exercises.
The goal of our core courses in political philosophy is to give students the opportunity to study the application of the principles they learn, rather than just concentrating on abstract theory.
For us, the proper study of political philosophy requires students to answer such questions as “What is a good life?” “What is a good person?” “What is virtue?” and “What are the forms of government most conducive to helping the individual lead a good life?” Those questions are always in season.
A text of central importance to the course is Plato’s The Republic, which encourages students to delve into questions such as the definition of justice, the ideal state, and the education of the soul. Then they move into Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which analyzes the ideas of moral and intellectual virtue, the “good life” for man, and the significance of friendship. Another text is On Law, Morality, and Politics by St. Thomas Aquinas.
We do not believe that our students can become responsible citizens unless they understand our country’s system of government and the principles upon which it was founded. Our new core course on the Constitution aims to familiarize them with the ideas that inspired the American Founding and helped shape the government under which we live today.
Toward that goal, we have the students read the Constitution itself, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, James Madison’s Vices of the Political System of the United States, selections from the Federalist Papers, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and more.
Now I would like to focus especially on the most emblematic (and some might say radical) change made to the Abbey’s core: the new/old way that writing is now taught. Composition and Argumentative Prose, the two previous introductory English courses in the old core, have been replaced by Rhetoric I and II.
This two-course sequence is built upon the foundation of classical Rhetoric, one of the seven original liberal arts. Developed by Greeks and Romans of the classical period, this is the course of study that not only gave rise to the timeless eloquence of Cicero, Augustine, Dante, and Shakespeare, but also animated the writings of America’s Founding Fathers.
Dr. Angela Miss, associate professor of English, who is in charge of writing instruction, explains the rationale for going back to this all-but-forgotten method of teaching writing:
Rhetoric formed the center of liberal education for two and a half millennia, and through the nineteenth century, it was regarded as one of the most important disciplines taught in college. With the advent of the twentieth century, however, the emphasis placed on rhetorical study diminished, and so, accordingly, did our ability to communicate well in both spoken and written discourse.
Some of our fellow educators—as well as some parents and students—might call this "retro" approach to writing instruction naive, impractical, and out of touch with the demands of the twenty-first-century job market. We respectfully beg to differ. Indeed, we submit that the time-proven pedagogical techniques we're reinstituting will better prepare our students for success in their career and life.
In a recent interview about the new core in the Abbey’s alumni magazine, Crossroads, Carson Daly makes this very point:
Since many high schools have abdicated their responsibility in teaching how to write and speak, such an approach is not only sorely needed, but will also make our students better candidates for employment after they graduate. In survey after survey, employers say that the top two abilities they are looking for in job candidates —and not finding—are the ability to speak and write clearly. In the current, tough job market, I believe that our focus on helping our students to speak and write well will help prepare our students for employment, for further study, and for life after college.
Important to the success of any course on writing is the anthology of writings that is used as a model for students. Here, the Abbey has made yet another significant change. It has replaced anthologies with titles like Making Literature Matter and The Writer’s Presence with an inspired new/old anthology of its own, The Belmont Abbey College Reader, edited by Angela Miss.
In this book, Abbey students encounter Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, Demosthenes’ The First Philippic (Oration IV), Cicero’s In Defense of Titus Annius Milo, selections from Aesop’s Fables, and excerpts from St. Augustine’s The City of God—along with poems by Byron, stories by Flannery O’Connor, speeches of Winston Churchill, and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and others.
Furthermore, our dedicated faculty go the extra mile to help each student comprehend the readings, select good topics for essays, and work through drafts. They point out students’ grammatical errors and logical fallacies. They offer encouragement.
Some will say that our core curriculum “turns the clock back.” Yes, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”