Nova et Vetera: ACTC 2023

Nova et Vetera: ACTC 2023

by Dr. Erik Ellis, Senior Boethius Fellow

This year's annual meeting of the Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) provided those committed to teaching the most important literary products of the past with an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of maintaining their programs and practices in an increasingly unstable world. Still recovering from the worldwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical disturbances in Europe and Asia, inflation, fluctuating markets, and a steady trend of declining enrollment in higher education, many are feeling beleaguered. Some even suggest that the current way of doing things may have run its course, and there may be no place, or at least a much smaller place, for the study of humanities in the very near future of higher education.

In his keynote, Dr. Joshua Parens, the president of ACTC, expressed a quiet optimism about the future. He gave a report on the summer institute, "Rejuvenating and Reinventing the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century," which had been announced at last year's conference. He explained that the institute came about as a response to growing concerns about the viability of the socratic seminar in the absence of training in the trivium. His focus was on opening up and continuing conversations about the possibility and desirability of deploying the trivium in the context of core texts programs. He said that exposure to these liberal arts helps students and instructors to appreciate the cultures that produced the texts they study. In a definite way, these arts furnish a set of interpretive keys that unlock the structures of the mental and aesthetic systems that inspired their composition. He questioned whether there was continuing value in studying the quadrivium but expressed confidence that study of the arts of language make a difference in students' ability to access texts, that these arts had an important role in addressing at least some of the pedagogical difficulties encountered by instructors working with contemporary students in the context of core texts programs, and that ACTC's efforts in this direction would continue.

I could detect a generational bias in the responses to the various crises facing core curriculum educators. The more established programs, run by tenured faculty at universities, seemed on the whole to be concerned about the declining competency of entering freshmen. The continuing fallout from pandemic measures means that many 18-year-olds have never been asked to read a novel, or at least, missed the opportunity to do so in person with a teacher when they were 16 or 17, commonly the age when students begin to read what may be properly called "literature" in the classroom. Further, the long experiment in online education encouraged the substitution of realtime audio-visual instruments of production and evaluation rather than traditional written assignments. This means practically that a large number of students now require remediation in order to perform the tasks of reading and writing that have been normally expected of them in the past. Core curriculum educators say the decline in these basic skills has been precipitous.

Coupled to this has been the reconfiguration, primarily in red states, of high school education away from "literature" to "writing" and away from a college-preparatory model based on honors and advanced placement courses towards early completion and dual credit programs. In deemphasizing the humanities while also accelerating students' entry into the workforce, such measures allow public systems of education in states like Texas and Florida to sidestep the culture wars while also strengthening the identification between college graduation and professional certification. While private universities are more insulated from this trend, they nonetheless take the majority of their students from public schools and must respond to government programs that would see freshman stepping onto campus with a year or two of college credit already on their transcript, and almost all of this at the level and on the subjects that are traditionally serviced by core texts programs.

Those most optimistic about the future were young faculty and graduate students who look forward to building new or revitalizing existing programs. Many of this younger set are international, looking to capture something of the American way of doing great books in their own countries even as that tradition begins to look a bit gray-headed in its native land. As pioneers, they are excited to explore how a common core of western texts to the sixteenth century can and must be adapted to a Hispanic or Continental context that is distinct from the implicit Anglo-American bias that runs in most core curriculum courses that center on texts written in the period 1600-1900. They also look forward to adapting the American system of general education to contexts in Europe and Latin America that assume specialization has already occurred at age 17 or earlier.

The most confident and vigorous attendees were those formed by or serving peculiar, "boutique" colleges with a commitment to a tradition of wisdom. While by no means necessarily religious, such institutions all have a definite idea that their programs engage in a particular brand of formation that, at least in most cases, actually produces what it intends to produce, and that by a clear regime of pedagogical practices, a defined canon of texts, and a common understanding of principles among faculty. Representatives of such institutions reported that interest in subjects like classical languages, the trivium, and the quadrivium is growing every year as the development of several different accounts of "classical education" has continued apace in homeschools, religious schools, and public charters.

Although the overall decline in higher education enrollment is discouraging, the renewal of classical education in K12 is creating a small but growing demand for a much more integral approach to core texts instruction. Classical charters and religious schools have the opportunity to partner with “boutique” expressions of higher education to develop the traditional liberal arts disciplines as a vital propaideutic means to enrich and deepen students’ reading of the core texts and great books of the past while working towards a general renewal of culture in the present and future. Students who have already had three or more years of a classical language, already have spent a semester or more converting syllogisms, and have learned to declaim as well as to write a five-paragraph essay are increasingly confident in their approach to the good and the true and are searching for a more definite basis on which to judge and make the beautiful. As the century-long recovery of the trivium blossoms, the time is ripe to plant the seeds for a similar renewal of the quadrivium. As Aristotle and Cicero led the way back to virtue ethics and classical logic and rhetoric, Boethius may serve as a guide to the recovery of beauty.

So, it seems that young people in the future will be both post-literate and hyper-literate. Adlerian great books education may have had its day, but I am confident that the reading of core texts in seminar has a long future. It is likely that we will have differences of opinion on the extent to which training in the liberal arts tradition should precede or accompany this study, but it seems to have been settled that we do, in fact, need them. I look forward to continuing this conversation at next year's conference and working with educators to bring the next generation to wisdom through the seven arts of language and number. In the meantime, the fellows of the Boethius Institute have much to learn and much to share as we work to advance towards the next stage of recovery.

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