When I enrolled at Wabash College, the faculty had just voted on retiring the Cultures and Traditions course, a two semester sophomore seminar on the great texts of ancient and modern history. Such a course was meant, I presume, to serve as an introduction to at least some of the foundational texts of civilization. Arranged mostly chronologically the texts would be an introduction to some of the big ideas of humanity. But intellectual balkanization took the day, and the course was replaced with a freshman second semester course called Enduring Questions.
With all due apologies to the chief architect behind the course, Dean of the College Gary Philips, who, despite being an excellent professor for my section, fathered this disaster. EQ was a smorgasbord, The product of many kooky cooks in one claustrophobic kitchen. Some of the items on the menu were not even food. It was as though a gaggle of drunk undergrads were appointed to the curriculum committee on a Saturday night and immediately proclaimed, “For dinner we will be having strawberry gravy over Hot Wheels cars with a side of Papa John’s Red Pepper Flakes. As an aperitif, gentlemen, indulge yourself with this fine wine from an origami sippy-cup.” The course consisted of all the greats, that is, one sexist page from Aristotle, a bit of a book on freedom by an educational philosopher, In Defense of Dolphins arguing for the personhood of these ocean tricksters, a good Black experience novel, several movies (Bladerunner, Orlando, City of God), some holocaust literature, and The Power and the Glory. Despite, Gary’s heroic attempts to create a single thread holding this course together, the entire college suffered severe intellectual indigestion.
My soured relationship with Gary (would it weren’t so! He and I really should have been friends, but I spent half my college career trying to overthrow the administration, i.e. Gary and the President) met its ultimate end at an EQ course section reunion dinner three years later during senior year. As we circled around each other in conversation, looking to slide the rhetorical stiletto into each other, another student committed a terrible and crass faux pas. He ended our soft barbs with a cannon blast, a direct insult on the Dean. How could he not know to whom he was speaking? Could a senior have really been so ignorant that he did not know that Gary designed the EQ course? Did he not realize we were at that moment eating delicious vegetarian cuisine in our host’s vegetarian Victorian home? Maybe it was the light sparring that Gary and I engaged in that egged this student on? Or yet perhaps a desire to be noticed for having formed a wise and considered opinion after years of liberal arts reflection? Whatever the cause, heavenly compulsion or earthen desire, he managed to cruelly insult our host. Silence would have been golden, but instead: “Do you all remember In Defense of Dolphins?” he asked. Then continued, “Yeah, that was a really stupid book. I didn’t get it. Why did we have to read that?” So shocked was I, that I had to look at Gary and give him the reassuring I-swear-I-didn’t-put-him-up-to-saying-that.-He’s-obviously-just-really-sincere-and-heedless-of-the-fights-that-have-been-going-on-the-last-three-years look.
In any case, a course which lacks coherence will neither be absorbed nor respected by the student years hence. And that is the lesson of EQ: courses are better when are topical, coherent, and lead somewhere.
It is possible to error in the other direction, but I hesitate to even bring it up, since our schools are so far away from making this error. Nonetheless, for the sake of symmetry problem do arise when one only reads the great seminal texts. My mentor in bibliophilia Mike Martel, a Thomas Aquinas College graduate, and the most nurturing text lover I have ever met, always advocates for reading the texts themselves before the scholarship. But in our back and forth for seven years, we have moved closer to one another in the proportion of scholarship to primary texts on should read.