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The Core Course

Humanities and Fine Arts Core: Three Semesters

Honors students take about one third of their course work during their first year and in the fall of the junior year in the interdisciplinary honors "Core course" which combines the study of literature, history, philosophy and the fine arts with emphasis on values inquiry and the skills of critical and synthetic thinking, writing and problem solving. This sequence of three courses is taught by a team of faculty from English, fine arts, history and philosophy.

The design of the core course does not reflect the same principles as interdisciplinary courses which find their commonality in shared subject matter, i.e., "romanticism" or the "Civil War." Instead the commonality is in the many dimensions of the core questions around which the three semesters are organized:

First Semester: Fall of Freshman Year

  • What do we know? What do we believe? What, therefore, should I do?
  • How do we discern the good from the bad? What, therefore, should I do?

Second Semester: Spring of Freshman Year

  • How do we understand art? What, therefore, should I do?
  • How do we create and use the past? What, therefore, should I do?

Third Semester-Fall of Junior Year:

  • How do humans understand the Sacred? What, therefore, should I do?
  • Must the need for a stable social order conflict with individual liberty? What, therefore, should I do?

Each question comprises a unit lasting half of the semester. At the beginning of each unit, all students and faculty come together for some common readings and an introduction to the question. Students are then assigned to a disciplinary case study for that question/unit with 20 students and one faculty comprising a working group. After 6-7 weeks of case study work, the total group of 100 students and five faculty again comes together. First, there are oral student presentations or consensus papers from each disciplinary case study to the larger group. Second, as students finalize their drafts for their individual unit/question paper, they interact with students in other disciplinary units during the peer editing process.

In examining the core questions from the perspective of several disciplines, students develop an understanding of not only inter- relationships but of conflicting ways of viewing the same problem, question, idea or event. In short, students not only see the problems and disagreements within a single discipline, but come to see the problems and disagreements within a portion of the larger academic community and western thought regarding questions of importance in all of these disciplines.

At one point we explored unifying the course even further by keeping the core questions but limiting disciplinary case studies to a particular century or "movement." We found this stacked the deck in terms of possible answers to the core question. There is a single cluster of answers in, for example, the Enlightenment period to the core question "What Do I Know and What Do I Believe?" The objective of the course sequence is not to send students away with the Romantic or Enlightenment or Medieval answers to the important questions of Western Civilization, but to have them see and explore the variety of answers across time and disciplines. This structure better prepares them to perceive contemporary and future experiences in historical and holistic perspective(s).

The present and future are further reinforced in the course through daily reading of The New York Times.

Included in all questions/units and case studies is training in writing, critical reading, a formal introduction to critical and synthetic thinking and problem solving. A fine arts requirement of six events per semester is integrated into the course. Concurrent with all of this is a community service program, required of all scholarship holders, in which the implications of the questions for community and public policy are part of the training process.