he gutting of the University of Chicago's core sequence in Western Civilization is one of the most important higher-education stories of the year. Once the gem of Chicago's vaunted core program, the Western Civilization sequence has been virtually phased out cut from ten sections to two. Separate shorter sequences in ancient civilization and European history have replaced the old year-long program in Western Civ. Critics from Saul Bellow to Gertrude Himmelfarb to the National Association of Scholars have decried the changes. But now, The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an editorial masquerading as a major news story, has accused the critics of defaming the university.
It turns out, however, that "The Smearing of Chicago" the front-page story in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, is a disaster for defenders of Chicago's curriculum changes. For starters, the article raises serious questions about the journalistic integrity of its author, Thomas Bartlett. Bartlett appears to have doctored a critical quotation so that it falsely supports his "smear" charge. (At a minimum, Bartlett has grievously erred and the Chronicle needs to issue an explanation and correction.) More importantly, when the truth about the quotation in question is revealed, Professor Rachel Fulton, the chief administrator and defender of Chicago's Western Civilization curriculum changes, will be caught in an embarrassing contradiction that cuts to the heart of her case.
Readers should know that I am personally involved in this dispute, since "The Smearing of Chicago" features a discussion of my own opposition to the gutting of the Western Civilization sequence. But before we get to the juicy bits, lets step back and look at the argument of "The Smearing of Chicago."
According to Chronicle reporter Thomas Bartlett, the University of Chicago is the victim of defamation by academic traditionalists, who make several fundamental errors about the proposed changes to the Western Civilization sequence. First, critics point to the breakup of the Western Civ sequence into two shorter sequences as a surrender to academic specialization. Second, critics claim that the changes are a retreat from the traditional "Great Books" approach that has long characterized the Chicago core. Third, critics see the changes as evidence of a lowering of academic standards at Chicago.
According to Bartlett, these charges are "smears." Why? Actually, Bartlett never rebuts the charge of overspecialization. But Bartlett does argue that Chicago never had a "Great Books" program to begin with, and that, if anything, classic texts will be more central to the new curriculum than they were to the old. Bartlett also argues that, far from lowering academic standards, Chicago continues to have more core requirements than Columbia, a university famous for its own rigorous "Great Books" program. And Bartlett points out that, since the controversial curriculum changes were first begun under the presidency of Hugo Sonnenschein, the SAT scores of incoming Chicago freshmen have actually risen significantly. Let's take Bartlett's charges of traditionalist "smears" in order.
On the matter of overspecialization, Bartlett not only fails to rebut the traditionalist critics, he actually proves their case. It's hard to spin the breakup of a yearlong sequence in Western Civilization into two shorter courses, one on the Ancient Mediterranean and one on medieval and modern Europe, as anything other than increased specialization. Bartlett stresses that students will read more ancient texts in the new course than they did in the old, but that just confirms the critics' point. Classics professors will be assigning more Plutarch and Livy, but only because they won't have to teach any Tocqueville or Mill.
Something important is at stake here. The main point of the Western Civilization sequence is to convey the idea of Western history as a whole to draw the connections, and note the differences, between the ancients and the moderns. To understand how Machiavelli drew on, but also broke with, the ancients, or to understand the difference between Cicero's virtue and Tocqueville's "self-interest rightly understood," one has to study the sweep of Western history in sequence. This is important to us, because it was of profound importance to our forebears. The leading figures of the Renaissance, like the Founders of the United States, saw themselves as acting within a living tradition that connected them to the Ancients. The balance of power framework built into our constitution, for example, was drawn from Roman precedents by the Founders, who were intimately familiar with Cicero, Livy, and a whole range of Roman writers. It's no coincidence that our upper house is called the Senate, or that our monumental architecture harks back to Greece and Rome.
The point of the Western Civilization sequence is to nurture this sense of a living and continuous tradition of the West. That cannot be accomplished by a classicist assigning extra Cicero in a specialized course on ancient history. It can only be accomplished by a sequence of courses that connect Cicero, Machiavelli, and Tocqueville, a sequence taken in common by sufficient numbers of students to spark real discussion and debate, even outside of class. It is this sense of shared tradition that is being lost here, and that is what this debate over Chicago's curriculum changes is really about.
Bartlett claims that Chicago never had a "Great Books" program in the first place, by which he means that Chicago's core was never, like Columbia's, a program in which all students throughout the university read exactly the same books. Bartlett also claims to be rebutting me when he makes this point. Yet our contemporary academic culture war was ignited in 1987 when University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom called for colleges to follow the Great Books model of education, a model that he clearly thought remained alive, if threatened, at the University of Chicago.
For Bloom, the foremost benefit of a Great Books program is its provision of a shared intellectual experience that can serve as the substance and glue of student friendships. It is true that Columbia's core program has more readings in common than Chicago's. Yet the three-quarter sequence in Western Civilization has been a key source of common knowledge at Chicago, even if professors were allowed some flexibility in assigning readings in a given section. How can the breakup of that sequence into shorter separate sequences (of which students need only take one) fail to reduce the fund of shared intellectual experience at Chicago?
Bartlett argues that Chicago's academic standards have not been lowered by the years of curriculum change. After all, says Bartlett, Chicago still has more core requirements than Columbia. But it is precisely the increasing flexibility of those requirements that reduces the demands that they place upon students. Harvard long ago adopted what is now ruefully referred to as the "hollow core," a program that, despite its many "requirements," is little different from the ordinary smorgasbord of specialized courses in the larger college. Chicago's core is rapidly moving in that direction. (By the way, I myself have taught in the University of Chicago's Core program, and have seen this hollowing out from the inside.)
Bartlett's point about the rising SAT scores of Chicago students also misses the real meaning of falling academic standards at the university. Academic standards at Chicago are determined as much or more by the extraordinary nature of the demands put upon students as by SAT scores. No one is more opposed to the dilution of SAT tests than I. I have publicly attacked the attempt to gut the test. Certainly, Chicago can and should continue to admit students on the basis of their test scores. But the demanding nature of Chicago's core curriculum has long set its own standard, selecting not only for students who are smart, but for those who are willing to submit themselves to a demanding but exhilarating set of academic requirements.
This is not a novel argument. Three years ago on Slate, for example, Jacob Weisberg offered an eloquent defense of Chicago's demanding core requirements, even at the cost of some reduction in the school's applicant pool. Not only has Thomas Bartlett missed this important argument in support of the traditional core, he has mischaracterized the growing applicant pool at Chicago as evidence that traditionalists have "smeared" the university. On the contrary, the traditionalists have understood for years that, with the elimination of the core's demands upon students, the applicant pool would actually grow. But that does not mean Chicago's academic rigor has risen; it means that it has fallen.
At the end of "The Smearing of Chicago," Thomas Bartlett reproduces a series of supposedly misinformed statements by conservative critics that are allegedly contradicted by Chicago professors who know better. Supposedly, the professors' answers to the critics prove that conservatives have "smeared" the University of Chicago.
For example, a traditionalist critic is quoted claiming that the changes in Western Civ will allow professors to teach their own specialties, rather than a broad but common body of knowledge. Against this supposed misinformation, Professor Rachel Fulton, the new head of the European history core program, is quoted as maintaining that the structure of the new course will actually make teaching to one's specialty impossible.
There's just one problem. The traditionalist critic who Professor Fulton is rebutting here is none other than...herself. That's right, the Chronicle's reporter, Thomas Bartlett, has actually presented two quotes by Rachel Fulton, the administrator and main defender of the new history curriculum, as though Professor Fulton were debunking a traditionalist "smear," instead of destroying her own credibility by contradicting herself.
Bartlett takes the passage accusing the new curriculum of overspecialization from a column in the Chicago Tribune. That column makes it unmistakably clear that it is Rachel Fulton herself who is acknowledging that the new course structure will allow professors to teach to their personal specialty. Bartlett could not have excerpted Fulton's quote from the Tribune without first removing the words, "Fulton also says that..."
Having just published a front-page article accusing the University of Chicago's critics of using misinformation and smear tactics, Bartlett himself has edited a quote from the new curriculum's chief defender so as to put it in the mouth of her critics. Not only does this impeach Bartlett's journalistic integrity, it impugns the credibility of the curriculum's chief defender. Professor Fulton once freely acknowledged that the changed course structure would feed into academic specialization. (How could it not? Classics professors, after all, would no longer have to teach the French Revolution, and could spend all of their time on Greece and Rome.) Having realized that this admission played into her critics' hands, Fulton evidently changed her tune and pretended that the new curriculum was not a concession to increased academic specialization. Instead of catching her in the contradiction (the real story here), the Chronicle's reporter actually suppressed the source of the original quote and spun it as proof of a "smear" by traditionalists.
Clearly, the Chronicle needs, at minimum, to issue an explanation for the omission of the true source of the quote in question (and with a prominence commensurate to a serious error committed in a front-page story leveling charges of a "smear" against many organizations, scholars, and intellectuals). It is difficult to understand how Thomas Bartlett could not have known that Rachel Fulton herself was the author of the quote that he put into the mouth of Fulton's opponents. But if it was not deliberate and unethical behavior on Bartlett's part, then surely it was gross incompetence.
The shame of it all is that The Chronicle of Higher Education has chosen not to cover the campus culture wars, but to fight them. On the substantive points at issue specialization, Great Books, and academic rigor I have argued that the Bartlett piece is simply wrong. But surely the difference of opinion on these critical issues is legitimate and substantive, not a question of traditionalist "smears." Not only has the Chronicle made an ill-informed and unconvincing attack on traditionalist critics of Chicago's curriculum changes, it appears to have stooped to unethical distortions in order to do so. It's hard not to ask, who's smearing whom?