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Core Curriculum and Quality Education: A Conversation Stephen ZelnickGo Back to Table of Contents
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Zelnick: This isolation of the academic is producing not only people in education who are uninterested in the emerging generations, a scandal itself, but also teachers who are socially inept--who have no empathy for the generations to come--teachers who are against wonder, against spirit, against heart, which must always be at the foundation of the Humanities. Thus there is a kind of dis-investment in the future, a selfish manifestation of insecurity, a kind of cruelty. I’ve come to believe that you cannot be a good teacher if you are not a good person first. Therefore there is little use for courses in “ethics” if teachers do not live ethical lives fundamentally established in a faith in human possibility and a care for human beings. Students know when you do not care about them. When you do not care, then they do not care, and what they are learning is damaging to themselves and to civilization as a whole. A part of the problem is that there are so few real rewards for the undergraduate teacher. There are quite a few disincentives, and to be frank with you, in most universities being a good teacher is not a priority in hiring. That means academic departments have lost the rewards of what it is to walk out on the lawns and see students from different backgrounds, class structures, and religions, debating Thucydides with the same zeal and youthful enthusiasm that you might have seen in ancient Athens. That, if we lose it, is to have lost altogether. But if you witness this, and find delight in new generations of minds filled with wonder and with questions, you are participating in the greatest adventure.

Zelnick: Students, particularly undergraduate students, sense authenticity keenly. They have not compromised to any great degree yet, and they know when something is apropos to living experience and when it is contrived. They sense in the classics reality in a way that critics, proving some critical thesis of their own, have lost. The classics speak directly to students, amplified in their experience and in their imagination. Students are closer to their own humanity than you might suppose, and therefore closer to the substance of these texts. The job of the teacher is to bring this out.

ellipses: Do you believe that if texts are taught on their own terms, they are accessible to students?

ellipses: Has there been too much exclusion of classical texts from most curricula?

Zelnick: The exclusion of these books from the curriculum is devastating. It’s becoming obvious to many people that they have to come back.

ellipses: If they are put back into undergraduate education, can the Humanities once again become the soul of the university?

Zelnick: An awful lot depends upon the professorate. Nothing is impossible if the professors are good. And right now, they’re not. The professorate has been professionally compromised and is off doing things that are so selfish, so away from the world, and so lacking in force, courage, imagination, beauty, and heart, that nothing can happen unless that changes. Were that to turn around, there’s no question that the Humanities are powerful and could reclaim the day.

ellipses: Will that happen within a generation if Core Curricula stay the course?

Zelnick: What is the likelihood of this group of bandits, the professorate, coming back to the strong tradition of the Humanities? Well, that’s iffy. The line of activity that is currently ruling the roost is so dry and uneventful, except in the career lives of members of the profession, that it can’t stand up. It will collapse. What it will take with it when it collapses, I don’t know.

ellipses: Do you believe in the complaint that the instruction of Great Books has no relevance for young people in “the information age”?


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