The Liberal Arts and a Core Curriculum for Princeton

The liberal arts are no longer in vogue. Then again, few things still are that first got hot in the fifteenth century, but if we are to listen to the prevailing wisdom among academia today,
that’s something to be thankful for anyway. Since the 1980’s and ‘90’s, the concept of
maintaining at a university a liberal arts curriculum founded on the core books of the Western
cannon has been largely panned. These studies are now the hollowed-out husk of an educational
fallacy, a body that’s been slowly rotting for centuries. They are no longer relevant in an
enlightened and globalized world of higher education, and they won’t help students find
employment upon graduating into a harsh, globalized job market. As elite universities
restructure their general education requirements, and schools like Chicago and Columbia find
themselves increasingly alone and embattled for prescribing a liberal education, it is becoming
clear that that branch of learning dedicated to worshiping at the altars of “dead white men” is all
We should pause for a moment, however, to briefly reassess the value of these studies
before consigning them to the dust-heap of failed and forgotten educational experiments. The
fact remains that the liberal arts are useful and necessary for every student who passes through
Princeton, regardless of major or career plan. It is often said that the liberal arts are beneficial
because they teach communication or problem solving or creative thinking. While these claims
may be true, if also a bit nebulous, the liberal arts exist for far more. They are not simply an
educational game or gimmick. Rather, by exposing students to certain areas of study and certain
texts, they develop the human mind, and, in doing so, help human beings attain their full
potential as rational creatures.
We ought to view the liberal arts as a kind of physical education program for the mind.
Nearly every high school in America, and many universities, prescribe some sort of
comprehensive Physical Education (PE) program for their students. PE is recognized as
universally beneficial because it trains, tones, and develops the body, and human beings, as
partly bodily beings, are stunted or deprived in some way if they do not receive this training.
The same rules apply to the mind, because human beings are also rational beings. It is often said
that the liberal arts are a waste of students’ time—that they do not teach or communicate
anything practical that students will use in their professional careers. But think how ridiculous
this logic becomes when it is applied to the concept of schools’ PE requirements. I would
challenge you to find any educator in the country who would argue that students’ PE classes
should consist solely of typing exercises, even though typing is most likely all the physical
activity necessary for students’ professional careers. Educators realize that the body as a whole
must be developed for the formation of a healthy human being. The same concept holds for the
mind. Through certain studies, students train, tone, and develop the whole of their minds just as
they do the whole of their bodies through certain PE classes. The liberal arts teach students to
think, to write, to reason, and to argue, and to analyze the thoughts, writings, reasoning, and

arguments of others, and these abilities make them, in a very real sense, more rational, and thus
more human. They liberate students from ignorance and free them to reason effectively.
Earning a liberal education is time-consuming and painstaking work, and a focus on the
liberal arts necessarily entails less intense focus on more specific and perhaps more immediately
practical fields of study. But a university at the most basic level should exist to develop its
students—should serve to educate them for freedom. A university cannot serve merely as a
glorified trade school. It exists for a higher purpose.
What then should be included in the liberal arts curriculum? Traditionally, the studies
included were logic, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Today, the
term “liberal arts” applies to such studies as the great books, history, languages, mathematics, the
physical sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, music, and religious studies. Few argue that
students shouldn’t make at least basic progress in mathematics and the physical sciences—these
are “useful” or “practical” areas of study. But other courses are crucial for students as well, and
chief among them are those covering the core great books of the Western tradition. This is,
admittedly, not a popular claim, and courses dedicated to this pursuit cannot claim high
numbers—the humanities sequence at Princeton, for example, fields only about 30 freshman out
of a class of about 1300 each year. Despite their lack of popularity, courses of this sort are
vitally important for the formation of any student and responsible adult.
One reason for this fact is that we currently live in a nation whose laws and founding
principles have been profoundly influenced by those thousands of years of thought now referred
to as the Western core. The United States bears the fruit of centuries of this thought, dedicated
to questions such as what it means to be human, what it is to be a free citizen, the role religion
should play in our lives, how much power should be allotted to a central government, and a
hundred other questions which shaped our nation’s founding and with which we still struggle
today. Whether we like it or not, we all live within, and our lives are all shaped daily by, the
Western tradition, and at least a basic familiarity with this tradition is necessary for becoming
a conscientious citizen. The argument is often made that the Western tradition should not hold
an elevated place in the core curriculum—that reading great East Asian literature, for example,
broadens the mind just as well. While this may be true, such literature does not engage our
political and social climate today the way the Western tradition does, because unlike the Western
tradition, the Eastern did not found it.
But a study of the great books of the Western tradition is also important because these
are, well, great books. They are the some of the greatest creations the human mind has produced
since the beginning of time, and to ignore them is to ignore a seemingly endless font of wisdom
and insight into the human condition. Seriously engaging these works in a seminar setting
teaches a student to analyze the writing of others, and to effectively communicate the results of
this analysis both through prepared writing and impromptu speaking. And while it is true that
these skills can be won through the study of other, less significant if more “relevant” books, or
through other classes and disciplines altogether, they cannot be won to the same extent. All
books and all disciplines are not equal, and all do not offer the same educative possibilities. One

could learn to analyze texts and formulate arguments from a reading of Harry Potter or even
“The Vagina Monologues,” but not as thoroughly or as well as from a study of The Aeneid or
Don Quixote because the former are simply less profound works. A student could spend an
eighty-minute seminar poring over ten lines of Homer and return to the same passage the next
day and do it again. Performing this depth of analysis, submerging oneself this deeply into a
text, offers a sublime educational experience that Harry Potter, or a class in statistics or biology,
simply cannot. These books are called great because they are great, because they have
confounded and delighted humanity’s greatest minds for centuries. Studying them broadens the
mind to such an extent and provides it with such powerful analytical skills that even students
who in the course of their careers will never open another work of literature again should study
This brings us, at last, to Princeton’s general education requirements. Let us begin by
giving credit where credit is due. The university has committed itself in many ways to the liberal
arts curriculum, by requiring that all students take classes in a broad range of disciplines, from
science and math to history and literature. School administrators often speak of the great
benefits derived from this cross-disciplinary system—see President Shirley Tilghman’s remarks
at last year’s graduation ceremony for example. And the university hasn’t sold out to a
communications or marketing preparation school—both hallmarks the “practical” pre-
professional curriculum. But at the same time, the University does not prescribe for its students
a standard core curriculum focused on the great works of the Western tradition. In fact, students
can, without much effort, go their entire time at Princeton without ever reading a single work
from the Western core. Here’s how:

EC: Human Evolution
EM: Israeli Media; Race and Medicine
HA: LGBT American History; Race and the History of Racism in Brazil
LA: Sex on Stage; Types of Ideology and Literary Form – Pornography, Gender and the Rise of
STL: Natural Disasters
STN: Topics in Modern Astronomy
SA: Gendered Identities in Contemporary Korea; Production and Consumption of Culture

This plan of study does not even consider, of course, freshman seminars, some of which are
valuable offerings and others of which provide clever frosh a chance to escape with a painlessly
and fruitlessly earned requirement.
Consider this course selection in light of Princeton’s unofficial motto: “In the nation’s
service and the service of all nations.” This university expects its graduates to be model citizens
first to their country and then to the world. By this the university does not, or at least should not,
mean simply that it expects students to spend a few years in Teach for America before heading

into finance. Good citizenship arises from good education, from proper development of the
human mind through the study of the Western core, not from throwing a few years at community
service before heading down one’s own career path, or showing up to vote once every four years,
or attending a town hall meeting once a decade, as often seems to be preached. Princeton should
realize that its unofficial motto is as much a commandment to itself as to its graduates— and
thus should acknowledge that in letting its students skate by without even a passing nod to the
real and necessary formation brought by the liberal studies, it is letting its students down. If the
school really cares about developing those who pass through its halls as human beings, rather
than simply programming them for a lucrative or a prestigious career, it will shore up the glaring
cracks in its system of general requirements.
I realize that this way of thinking has been out of style for decades. I understand that
most educators see my views as whimsical, misconceived, and fossilized notions dug up from an
earlier and less enlightened age. To those who disagree with me, however, I would first point
out that Columbia has a core curriculum which forces its students to confront such works as The
Metamorphoses and Faust, and if Columbia’s doing it, it can’t be that reactionary. And second I
would say that a great education does not consist simply of “practical” courses. It does not even
consist simply of a rather vague commitment to the liberal arts as a whole. A great liberal arts
education, which is the greatest education, must be founded on the Western core. Students must
study these works, the greatest gems on the crown of human wisdom and ingenuity, if they
seriously wish to learn, to think, and to communicate as effectively as possible and to understand
the cultural and political climate of our day.

By John Paul Spence ’16

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One thought on “The Liberal Arts and a Core Curriculum for Princeton

  • June 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    One thing we should consider is why Western world is ashamed of its own culture. And other is how are we going to educate the whole individual, not only the practical one. How are we going to develop the spiritual/intellectual part of ourselves? Are we going to deny our inner I?


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