Understanding the Origins and Nature of Democracy

In search of a Western core curriculum at Emory

Harvey Klehr

About once a decade the Emory faculty revisits the question of a liberal arts curriculum and asks what undergraduate students ought to know. Over the past forty years, the faculty has swung back and forth, sometimes virtually abandoning any effort to impose requirements. (When I arrived at Emory in 1971 students had to take three courses in the natural sciences and mathematics, three in the social sciences and three in the humanities. The only required course was Drownproofing, offered in physical education.) 

For a while, students were required to take, among other things, a course in American history and two on the development of Western civilization. Currently, we have gone back to minimalism, with courses required only in broad areas, along with a foreign language. Hundreds of courses are available to satisfy general education requirements in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. It is now possible, indeed likely, that students will graduate from Emory without ever taking a course in history or on the ideas that have shaped Western civilization or the origins or nature of democracy. 

The Program in Democracy and Citizenship is coordinating a group of courses to offer students the opportunity to experience such a set of courses by participating in a voluntary core curriculum beginning in the fall of 2012. The “voluntary core” will consist of four interrelated courses for freshmen based on readings from great works in the Western intellectual tradition. One, in political science, will examine the foundations of American democracy. A second, in history, will survey great books from the Bible to Adam Smith and Karl Marx. A philosophy course will examine various answers to the question of what is the good life for human beings. And an English course will have students read great works of Western literature from the Aeneid to Wordsworth. The courses will be supplemented by a speaker series, the Emory Williams Lectures in the Liberal Arts, that will bring outside lecturers and Emory faculty into conversations with students taking courses in the voluntary core.

This voluntary core is based on the belief of participating faculty that some students want guidance about a coherent, interrelated series of courses that can satisfy a significant proportion of their General Education Requirements and introduce them to some of the core questions that a liberal arts education should raise: what is the good life? What is the best form of government? What makes a great work of literature? 

At a handful of American colleges and universities, a core curriculum requires all students to take a series of courses, usually based on great works of the Western tradition. Whether at Columbia or Chicago, such cores were typically put in place decades ago; few have been instituted in recent years. There are many reasons. It has become increasingly difficult for faculty to agree about what should be in a core; growing specialization within disciplines has reduced the number of faculty interested in teaching in such a core; and suspicions have grown that such cores are efforts to advance a politicized agenda hostile to emerging disciplines or areas of study.

No matter what their backgrounds or countries of origin, Emory undergraduates are living in a world profoundly shaped by the Western tradition and in a country founded on democratic principles. By no means is the voluntary core premised on the idea that students should limit their studies to the history and foundational texts of the Western tradition. To the contrary, the faculty involved in this effort will encourage students to explore other traditions and texts as well. Nor is the voluntary core intended to impart any particular political or ideological viewpoint. A serious encounter with the great texts of the Western tradition requires students to think critically because the authors of these texts disagree on fundamental questions (take Adam Smith and Karl Marx, for example). The underlying premise of the new voluntary core is simply that in order to understand and think critically about themselves and their world, students need to be exposed to the foundational texts that created and shaped that world.

The “voluntary core” is an experiment. The Program in Democracy and Citizenship has obtained foundation support for a three-year trial period. Each of the four courses will be offered once a semester. The courses will be limited to twenty-five students to encourage discussion. While we will encourage students to take all four courses, preferably during the freshman year, they have the freedom to take fewer. Thanks to a generous gift by Trustee Emeritus Emory Williams ’32C, the students will also have the opportunity to hear talks by and hold discussions with speakers both from the Emory faculty and outside, who will supplement the formal courses.

Our hope is that this program will demonstrate the value and interest in what has traditionally been at the core of a liberal arts education—student engagement with great books and great ideas as a foundation for a life of learning and engaged citizenship.