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Faculty Forum Papers



Michael Scanlan
Philosophy Department
Oregon State University

January 1988

Why Do We Need a Core?
"His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it."

Thus Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes in the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet. When I first read this passage, I was immensely struck by it. Here was Sherlock Holmes living in a metropolis of the age, a person of many singular accomplishments, making his living in an arcane and specialized trade. He is, admittedly, a fictional character, but there was no incongruity in portraying him as lacking completely any knowledge of the Copernican Theory. This, to me, was remarkable. It raised the question whether there is any body of knowledge which is essential for being an "educated" or "civilized" person in our culture, aside from some obvious basic skills such as reading, writing, and leaving telephone messages. I have kept my eyes open for a definition of such an essential core that could be said to provide a minimum, basic education. I have not seen anything for which one could not construct an easy counterexample, such as the eminently civilized Sherlock Holmes.

To take my own field for an example. There is one class of people, who, if you set them the task of determining what a "truly educated" person should know, are sure to insist on some philosophy. Most probably this would be in the form of knowing about some "great thinker" of the past such as Plato, Aristotle, or Kant. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people, academics and other intellectuals even, whom it would be foolish to consider uneducated, but whose ignorance of philosophy and philosophers could not be more profound.

I do not intend to go on much longer. My drift, I hope, is becoming apparent. The task which the Curriculum Review Commission has been set and which they have bravely tried to accomplish is impossible. There are no educationally justifiable course requirements that can be applied university-wide to insure a minimum education for students in our culture. There is not even something close to this. On the other hand, it seems to me that on the college level there is, perhaps, enough uniformity in student populations that common intellectual weaknesses can be identified. Perhaps most Engineering students can't write and most Liberal Arts students can't think mathematically. What such weaknesses are can most reliably be discerned, I think, by the faculty of the individual colleges. There are adequate mechanisms in place for such individual college requirements to be specified. I see no need for an additional layer of university-wide requirements, beyond, perhaps, total hours for a degree, campus residency, and a few other similar items.

Michael Scanlan
Philosophy Department
December 11, 1987

Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.