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University Curricula Are Changing (And Not For The Better)

November 27, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

Keep your eyes out for a new trend on college campuses across America. No — I am not talking about music or Title IX tribunals or any newfangled fad. Rather, a curriculum change is coming that we should collectively lift our eyes toward and begin asking tough questions.
There is a dirty secret among academics that many of the “soft sciences” cannot replicate their studies. Thus whenever you read an article arguing “scientists say,” you should reasonably be skeptical of the claims. Eggs are good for you, bad for you, good for you again…the same is even truer with sociological and psychological claims. In short, barely 1 in 3 of these studies can be replicated.
Replication is a key factor in determining what is and what is not a science. If one can replicate the experiment, as we all learned in high school, then we have reliable results. Thus the hard sciences of physics and chemistry really matter a great deal more than biology and anthropology.
Yet a proper education has to do more than make us all productive workers.
The word itself stems from the Latin educare, meaning to bring forth. Thus we are not truly looking to turn students into scientists, but rather to “bring forth” who they are in a disciplined, rigorous (but not rigid) fashion.
Hence we stumble across the so-called crisis of the humanities. In an era of STEM-H education — that is to say, trades and health care — the humanities seem to be taking second place.
Surely this will please most who see the rise of majors such as women’s studies, economics, sociology, psychology, and other fields.
Yet it comes at the cost of fields where we might want to preserve parts of the Western canon: English, philosophy, theology, and that all important but now forgotten field of letters.
Thus the University of Virginia is attempting a new path that offers a college undergraduate education in three areas: engagement, literacy, and discipline.
Engagement is the first avenue that asks students to challenge their presuppositions. Once this breaking down has begun actively, students are then asked to both read and write in order to explore where their own engagement takes them — rhetoric and data composition, for instance.
Finally, once they have engaged and read new ideas, they are asked to discipline these wild thoughts into a single, coalescing focus into history, science, philosophy, and so forth.
It’s an innovative approach, one designed to create a student who is more inquisitive and perhaps a bit broader in his or her interpretation of the world. Such is the postmodern emphasis on relativism in the face of the broad human experience — simply drink it all down without value or judgment.
Yet there is a value statement and judgment call that is made at the very beginning of this curriculum, namely, that whatever the young person brings to the table as a first-year student, he will be asked to break that down accordingly in order to be an ideal student of the institution.
This isn’t an argument for hard-headedness or stubbornness. One can be a very principled person and be a very open-minded one at the same time.
Yet in the effort to reform what an undergraduate education looks like, the university setting attempts not to create scholars, but rather malleable minds that will conform to the present-day opinions of experts, thus making the “replication crisis” substantively worse.
For instance, suppose you travel through this curriculum and question everything, then absorb whatever fractions of the Western canon (or other traditions) as you see fit. The end result is a fog, and it is only then that “discipline” becomes a factor.
Most students will not be going on to graduate school in the end, and so what they are taught toward the end is a simple appreciation for those who know better.
That must be concerning in the end, because those who “know better” aren’t exactly holding themselves to a standard of discipline one could properly call a science. In fact, we are no longer asking students to be generators of thought at this point, but rather to be good consumers of ideas, results, and graduate-level research.
Thus when “scientists say” something about any given topic, this new undergraduate is habituated to accept whatever they are told by experts, not because they have an appreciation for the actual underlayment, but because they have been merely winged by it.
What’s more, in order to be considered as sympathetic to that field — i.e., a “good” sociologist — one will have to demonstrate to other undergraduates educated likewise that you sympathize with the results of the high priests of any given discipline — because as we all learned in college, our foggy ideas can only be clarified by experts.
This is not to say that the “death of expertise” isn’t a problem in American society. But the reason why we no longer trust experts isn’t that we haven’t acquired a palate for ideas, but rather because the experts themselves are co-opted.
In order to get funding, they are bought to produce outcomes. After all, the worst sort of tyrants are the ones who simply mean well.
Rather than focusing on a more malleable public, universities should be teaching undergraduates how to frame proper questions to produce reliable outcomes based on an ontological reality rather than human caprice.
Undergraduates should be able to pick apart claims and shoddy methodologies, instantly pick up on categorical imperatives, and have an allergic reaction when “experts” or anyone else tells us to believe something as a matter of dogmatics rather than scientific inquiry.
If we want to rebuild the thinking class in America, we don’t need a field of experts who rely upon the self-skepticism imposed upon them by their undergraduate education.
Rather, give undergraduates a taste of academic rigor and let them surprise you with the questions they raise. This has long been the Catholic tradition of a university, and it is worth resurrecting in the secular field as well.

Statues And Mangers

Manger scenes will be popping up in front of churches of every Christian denomination across America. You should remind our Protestant friends that this is perhaps the one time of the year where they don’t seem to have a problem with statues.
Certainly no one questions whether they are worshipping plastic statuary in front of their churches. Why should Catholics have to answer for statues of the Blessed Mother the other 11 months of the year?

The Penitential Rosary

I mentioned the Penitential Rosary last week and for good reason. Though there is no confirmation from the bishop about this most recent apparition, Our Lady of Akita reportedly appeared once again to Sr. Sasagawa begging us to pray the Penitential Rosary — beginning with an Act of Contrition, the Apostles Creed, and then consisting of an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for each bead of the rosary.
Of course, there have been numerous breathless predictions as to why Our Lady of Akita reportedly has come again, most of them rather fearful and some of them rather pointed toward the Catholic bishops and cardinals. None of these criticisms came from the lady who appeared in the apparition. The lady in the apparition asked us to pray in reparation for the sins of the world.
Marian apparitions are always a tricky thing. The Church treats each of them with a high degree of skepticism for right reasons. Many Marian apparitions have nothing to do with the Church itself; most if not all are personal messages having to do with the salvation of one soul.
This is not to say that the apparition is a valid one. Our Lady of Akita most certainly has been validated by the local bishop, and her appearance in Japan has fit perfectly with our Lady’s messages at Fatima.
In short, the advice of Pope St. John Paul II with regard to Fatima and the state of the world remains just as urgent today as it was then, when he held up a rosary and asked those gathered: “Pray!”

Christmas Cards

Would you like a Christmas card? Who doesn’t like Christmas cards?! If you would like a Christmas card from the Kenney family, just send me a small note or shoot me an e-mail below. We are very diligent in making sure we get the Christmas card list out . . . and would love to include you in our extended family!

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First Teachers warmly encourages readers to submit their thoughts, views, opinions, and insights to the author directly either via e-mail or by mail. Please send any correspondence to Shaun Kenney c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, VA 23084 or by e-mail to kenneys@cua.edu.

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