My first class at the University of Washington was Physical Chemistry. As the professor walked into our darkened lecture hall, I opened my notebook eager to start taking notes. But, I wasn't prepared for what came next. The first thing the professor wrote on the overhead consisted of a series of triple integrals. Even for me, someone who relished math, this was intimidating...terrifying. In the next 45 minutes, the prof took us at light speed into quantum mechanics and never looked back.
In my course review at the end of the year, I suggested to him that maybe he could save the triple integrals until the second day because it was like being hit with a 2x4 on the first day.
Recently, the University of St. Thomas, my other alma mater, has been having a time of it, primarily because of the mishandling of the Archbishop Tutu talk. The publicity on this completely eclipsed the decision of the university to discontinue its current endeavors into building a medical school focusing on primary care.
Freshman english, however, is still a topic bubbling in the local community.
The university has come under fire for wanting to require The Handmaid's Tale to be used in their freshman english classes. On the surface, I'm not opposed to using the book, but that's not the whole story. (Cathy had a good post on the topic and I couldn't resist chiming in.)
Many folks who have attended St. Kate's or St. Thomas are either dead set against their kids going to either school (and I'm not lumping them in together saying that the problems are across the board) or have some serious reservations about letting their kids go there. This begs the question: why? Why should a parent be concerned about sending their kid to a Catholic university.
When I attended St. Thomas, I got the lecture, probably during orientation, that all the bits and pieces of what we were to learn in the liberal arts curriculum at St. Thomas would one day meld together. Upon completion of four years of coursework, "all would become clear." The whole would become greater than the sum of its parts.
St. Thomas identifies itself as a "Catholic" university. The coursework "parts" are not supposed to be islands unto themselves, turning a blind eye on what is learned in other departments. The classes are to build on each other and reinforce each other. One might assume that the foundation that all of this is to be built on centers on Catholicism, but if this were true, why would there be a reservation to letting your child attend here?
As much as I am critical of St. Thomas, I will have to say I never learned any bad theology...at least not from the theology department. I had to take two philosophy classes and three theology classes. As it was explained to me in freshman orientation, these two subjects were the core of the liberal arts education. Everything else followed from them.
So, here's part of the problem. I had six quarters of calculus and advanced math behind me when I met up against the triple integrals in P-Chem. It still knocked the air out of me. As a freshman entering St. Thomas, is the typical freshman ready for The Handmaid's Tale? Certainly, some students will be. But, I can say I wasn't. Nowadays, many students who attend St. Thomas are of other faiths or are poorly catechised like I was. While it's not the goal of St. Thomas to indoctrinate students, it is its goal to provide a good liberal arts education.
Father Corapi has said that you can't really understand theology without first learning philosophy. That philosophy gives you the "arms" to grasp theology. I don't know if this is strictly true, but the further I have gotten in school, the more I appreciate the foundational work I have to build on.
To dump The Handmaid's Tale into the lap of a freshman their first semester might not be the best course of action. I would argue that the book, or other books like it, should be part of the curriculum, but students need to have a basis to draw from to be able to critique the book as a social-political commentary instead of seeing it as just a story.
I also wonder about the context in which this book will be read. If the course was taught by a person who has a axe to grind or personal agenda, instead of a person who is no more or less Catholic than the Pope, then there is a problem. Back when I was attending St. Thomas, the theology and philosophy departments were orthodox, but venture out into another department and you had better be able to see what was coming at you.
There needs to be an integration of Catholic thought in the coursework. Students shouldn't view the philosophy and theology courses as just something they need to get through, something unrelated to their major, or even unrelated to their lives. It should be the foundation that their coursework builds on and the measure by which they see and critique the world around them.
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