A new program restricted by old ideas

Travis Knoll

For me, the Jefferson Center for Core Texts and Ideas seemed like yet another certificate offered in the marketplace of academic plans, a superfluous center to compete with Plan II and the other humanities programs in the College of Liberal Arts. I decided to do some digging into the CTI certificate program to answer these questions: Why another center? With so much business in our lives, and with the University pushing us to graduate in four years, can we afford to submit to another checklist or, alternatively, forego one of the more established elective routes? What is CTI’s claim to distinctiveness?

Thomas Pangle, co-director of the Jefferson Center for Core Texts and Ideas, deals with the organizational structure of the program. As he recalls, the existing program was based off a previous program, the so-called Western Civilization program started by UT philosophy professor Robert Koons. (Though supportive of the general idea for core programs, Koons declined to be interviewed about CTI.)

As the Western Civilization program faced controversy for its allegedly narrow focus, it was expanded in 2009 into the CTI program to include more cross-cultural courses. The program faced a number of challenges including funding and cross-listing its courses with the core requirements as well as finding affiliated faculty willing to adjust their curricula to include more primary texts. The Center has received funds from The Weaver Foundation, the Jack Miller Center for Teaching American Founding Principles and History and the Veritas Fund for Higher Education Reform, a New York-based philanthropic foundation “programs and courses in subjects which until now have been neglected” on college campuses.

Pangle says the funding has been used to provide a small book stipend for students and to give grants to faculty members for summer work related to integrating their courses into the program. Pangle is also known for his closeness to the ideas of Leo Strauss, a German-American philosopher from the University of Chicago. He emphasized that Strauss did not advocate codes or double meanings, but a “hunger” for the reading of texts that emphasizes their “timeless” qualities.

When I talked to Lorraine Pangle, the other co-director of the program and Thomas Pangle’s wife, she explained that the curriculum is designed mainly to explain “the development of Western thought for Americans.” Lorraine Pangle believes that studying the foundations, as well as the criticisms of, America’s liberal democracy will strengthen a sense of citizenship. Ultimately, she sees her program as a combination of modern critical thinking and a traditional “respect for the ancients” that “protected institutions they saw as healthy, institutions based partly on myth.” Although she is Straussian, she stresses that the program is not and that it draws on a variety of different viewpoints.

When asked about diversity, Lorraine Pangle pointed toward the course list featuring History of the Religions of Asia and comparative religious courses such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She also believes that the program increases dialogue between existing courses and works toward “improving” the UT core curriculum.

I have two reservations about the assumptions behind the program. The first is the idea of one core canon or text. University officials allow so many courses to fulfill core requirements because they realize that this type of category encompasses a broad range of texts, many of them new, and “outside the canon.” The idea of a core can seem to many as a vestige of Western colonialism. When taken to the extreme, it can lead to a rigid curriculum where education becomes the ability not to create, but merely to have a dialogue within more narrow parameters.

The second reservation accompanies the first. If America is the lens through which we view the world, we risk being unable to adapt to a fast-changing world where Western assumptions are being challenged. Thomas Jefferson may be an inspiring figure from our past, but he is hardly the best symbol for America’s future.

My philosophical disagreements aside, for students who have elective hours and are still looking for a rigorous approach to textual analysis — education for education’s sake — Core Texts and Ideas presents one more interesting compliment to the normal core programs.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.