Mahtani’s Approach To Core Curricula Falls Short

To the editors:

In “Bain and Suffering,” Sahil K. Mahtani (column, Oct. 5) takes me to task for recommending a conservative great books core curriculum for college students, including those at Harvard. I don’t know where Mahtani got that idea. Certainly not from my Wall Street Journal article, “Our Compassless Colleges”, where he purports to find it.

The curriculum I propose, in contrast to the virtually content-less core curricula at most of our leading universities, including Harvard’s new one and old one, involves 16 semester courses. Only three of the 16 courses—one dealing with American literature, one dealing with English literature, and one dealing with political philosophy—revolve around the reading of classic works.

In addition, I suggested that universities should require students to take a semester course surveying Greek and Roman history, one surveying European history, and one surveying American history; a semester course examining the principles of American government and one examining the principles of economics; a semester course in biology, and one in physics; a semester course comparing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; a semester course studying the history, literature, or religion of a non-Western civilization; and four semester courses in a foreign language (or the demonstration of the equivalent level of competence).

A core along these lines neither adopts the great books approach that Mahtani derides nor the general distribution approach that he embraces but rather provides a common-sense synthesis of the two. It presupposes only that knowledge is cumulative and that progress in education depends on mastering the basics.

Such a core, through its structure and content, cultivates, among other things, the virtues of accurate reading and informed argument. These virtues transcend partisan differences and will serve students well not only inside and out of the classroom but in life beyond the campus.


Washington, DC
October 7, 2007

The writer is Taube Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.