The Colgate Scene
November 2001

At the heart of the core

I am convinced that most professors, if asked why they chose the profession they did, would acknowledge that it was, in part, in order to pursue their own education.

Teaching certainly means giving knowledge, but it also means continuing to acquire it, by keeping up with developments in one's field, writing scholarly books and articles, attending conferences and learning new ways of engaging students in the kinds of questions one is, oneself, exploring. Teachers are students. Hopefully, they never lose that initial curiosity and enthusiasm for learning that brought them into their profession in the first place. In one way or another most of us use Chaucer's Clerk as a model: "gladly would he learn, and gladly teach."

When I think of the features that distinguish Colgate from other institutions of its size, four things come to mind: its 25 to 30 off-campus study programs in sites all over the world; its sponsorship of student research projects (that often also take students to places far from campus); the quality and stature of its athletic programs and its distinguished core curriculum.

Alumni have doubtless been exposed to some version or other of the core, since variations on it have been a central aspect of learning at Colgate since the 1920s. Some 80 percent of the faculty participate in the core, which today consists of four obligatory courses:

  • "Western Traditions" - a course that asks students to look closely at materials that have engendered lasting traditions in the West, whether epic, Biblical or Platonic;
  • "The Challenge of Modernity" in which students consider developments in the western world over the last century-and-a-half that have transformed both our material conditions and our way of conceiving of our place in the world;
  • "Cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas" - offerings that allow students to study cultures that are distinct from those in the western tradition;
  • "Scientific Perspectives" - courses that encourage students to explore questions and problems through methods that will give them a better awareness both of the nature of science and of the strengths and limitations of its approach to understanding the social, biological and physical worlds.

Students may take the four courses in any order, but every student is encouraged to have completed the courses by the end of his or her second year. Students who so wish then have the option to take a variety of core distinction courses. Lauren Bregman '04, who serves as a tour guide for prospective students, tells me that she feels an "immediate bond with alumni who were here before I was and with those students who will graduate after I do, knowing that we all will have something like the same knowledge base."

And Liz Young '03 emphasizes that "the core program allows students with diverse academic interests and backgrounds to come together for a common class, involving many disciplinary approaches. I could be taking `Western Traditions' with a philosophy professor," she goes on to say, "getting a completely different perspective than my roommate who is taking the same course with an economics professor. Together, we can come up with ideas and conclusions that neither of us would have imagined separately."

Colgate's core curriculum was recently selected by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as one of 13 model programs of its sort in the country. Colgate thus becomes an institution to which others turn for guidance in initiating and developing programs of a similar sort. Bob Shoenberg, an association member who visited campus and evaluated our program, told me that he had been to dozens of colleges and universities around the country that claim to have programs that sponsor dialogue between the various disciplines.

"Colgate," he says, "actually does it."

The core program went through a substantial revision at Colgate in the early 1990s. Since then there has been something of a minor revolution in technology and resources. Many classrooms are now equipped with computers, overhead projectors and sound and film capabilities. Students routinely e-mail questions to their professors. Increasingly, teachers are exploring new pedagogical strategies for engaging students in vital questions. Similarly, more and more professors are seeking ways to collaborate with each other to connect the perspectives of their disciplines in a common enterprise.

One of the most valuable experiences I have had as a teacher was in the fall of 2000 when my colleague and friend Robert Garland, chair of the classics department, agreed to link his courses to mine in an ambitious project we undertook with first-year students from the Class of 2004. We decided to have the same students in two separate courses. My core students took Garland's first-year seminar and his core students took mine. The seminar, which we put on together, was called, "Poetry, Painting, Music, Myth," and it sought to bring a wide array of responses to bear on the materials studied. When we read Homer's Iliad, for instance, we could extend the discussion of war in the poem to a consideration of paintings by Goya and Picasso on the same theme. When we read the medieval Romance of Tristan and Iseult, we also listened to Wagner's operatic treatment of the story.

We worked with an absolutely extraordinary group of students who were eager to try any of the rather unusual things we had cooked up for them, including a Greek-style symposium, or banquet, in connection with our study of Plato. Professor Garland explained the nature of the conventions governing such events in fifth-century Athens. One of the highlights of the semester was the bus trip we all made to New York City. We had an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an Italian dinner at La Tosca and, since we were just then reflecting on the relation of ethics to political engagement, we all went to see Gore Vidal's play The Best Man.

People assume that Colgate's core curriculum is for students. As I've tried to show, it is in fact a feature of our academic program that engages students and faculty alike. When I first came to Colgate in 1983, I was lucky enough to have a number of other job offers. Since my field is French studies, people asked me why I wouldn't have accepted an offer from the University of Virginia, for example, which at the time was thought to have one of the best French departments in the country. The reason was simple: I wanted to be able to teach -- and learn! -- in a program such as the one I heard described to me by James Nicholls when he interviewed me in Los Angeles late in 1982. I can still see Jim reclining on the bed in his room on the 12th floor of the Ambassador Hotel, his feet crossed, as he broached, somewhat gingerly, the question of the core. He explained that if I took the job in the department of romance languages it would also be the expectation of the university that I teach in a vast interdisciplinary program taught to all students and involving the vast majority of faculty. As he spoke, I imagined a huge table, heaped with rich and varied dishes, all of which I wanted to taste.

I know that when my time comes to leave Colgate some of my deepest memories will be of my experiences teaching in the core and of all the young faces I looked to for inspiration and encouragement, like junior Katy Goodrich's. She remembers taking "Western Traditions" in the Classics Center of Lawrence Hall in the spring of 2000.

"Anything seemed possible in those first rays of pure sunshine and, in that spirit, we unearthed and explored the travels of Odysseus, the parables of the Bible and the true love of Tristan and Iseult. We drank from antiquity's wisdom made fresh in that classroom and its earthy new air."


Naughton is professor of romance languages and literatures and director of the Division of University Studies.
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