CORE: The Soul of Scripps College

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Core: The Soul of Scripps

What awakens students to original ways of thinking, gives them new academic muscle, empowers undergraduates to write and research with ever-increasing sophistication, unites faculty in unexpected collaborations, and leaves alumnae with lasting satisfaction and pride?

What brings forth fear and confusion in the minds of entering students, yet leads to praise and a sense of accomplishment by the time they graduate?

It’s Core — the one-of-a-kind, distinctive three-semester interdisciplinary program in the humanities that introduces students to interdisciplinary investigation and critical thinking at Scripps College.

With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Core underwent a makeover this year and emerged even more compelling and relevant.

The program maintains the same basic structure and academic rigor that has earned acclaim from students, faculty, the larger academic community, and national media. But, after close and lengthy review, both internally and externally, Core has new theme and an invigorated faculty eager to learn from one another and to share with students their enthusiasm in the search for knowledge.

To find out more about the revised Core, we talked with Dion Scott-Kakures, professor of philosophy, who began a three-year tenure this past January as director of the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. The following is based, in part, on this conversation, his remarks to the Class of 2014, and other writings, as well as the Core Planning Committee’s report to the faculty, December 2008.

What is Core’s new theme and how is it different from the former theme?

The theme “Histories of the Present” replaces “Culture, Knowledge, and Representation” and more explicitly focuses on the relationship of critical thinking to contemporary problems and debates.

“Histories of the Present” examines both the values and categories that we often take to be obvious and the ways in which conventional or accepted understandings of them may prevent us from seeing the world in other ways. Among these values, we include profound and deep contemporary commitments to freedom, autonomy, equality, rights, justice, belief, and toleration.

We think of “Histories of the Present” as pointing to a method for doing critical, and especially self-critical, historically informed thinking about the concepts and languages we use to think about ourselves, others, and various problems. Our understandings can come to seem natural, or inevitable or non-negotiable — that is, as something without a history. “Histories of the Present” is a way of investigating the bases and the consequences of how we think. It involves grappling with how our own views have emerged, and seeing how they might well be different.

What are the goals of the course?

From the beginning, Core aims to create an opportunity for critical distance: to think about the very things we might take for granted and to be mindful of the consequences of so doing. This fall, throughout Core I, we take up the method of “Histories of the Present” with an eye towards probing the ways in which appeals to human nature and human difference, in various disputes and at various points in history, have important implications for our contemporary regard of ourselves. It’s worth noting that the appeal to the concept of human nature is incredibly contentious and vexed — politically and morally, as well as scientifically. A lot can hinge and has hinged on what we take ourselves to have in common and what we take the bases of our difference to be.

Another significant goal of Core, of course, is to provide a common experience for Scripps College students in the form of a shared intellectual enterprise.

Why is having a common experience important?

The hope — and this really does happen — is that we’ll discuss and argue about the issues we raise not just in seminars, but over lunch — at the Motley Coffeehouse, and while walking across the campus. Having a common vocabulary, one we develop in Core I, can be very handy. Throughout students’ time at Scripps, they will draw on that vocabulary in classes, in discussions with friends and with others — it makes a difference to the sort of place this is.

What are some of the changes to Core I?

First, a tremendous amount of planning went into developing the new Core I. With the support of the Mellon grant, 17 members of the Core I fall 2010 faculty met during a weekly seminar time throughout the spring semester. We settled on a schedule of presentations and a first take on the rough terrain of the issues we would explore. The work during the semester was largely devoted to presentations on various potential readings and issues and their relation to our semester-long investigation.

One change coming out of that seminar is that lectures and readings are now organized into related modules on an issue or issues of some contemporary relevance. The lectures and readings in each module develop from very different perspectives and take on a range of intimately related issues. The first module is “Humanity, Culture, Capabilities, and Rights”; the second, “Individualism, Sociality, and Difference”; and the third, “Categories and Their Implications.”

Could you say a bit more about these Core I modules?

The first module asks whether a universalist account of value (grounded in features of human nature or a view of human flourishing) is compatible with the specific forms of human living that are encountered in different cultures. The module starts with reading a contemporary intervention by the legal theorist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum into the question of how to respond to withering injustice suffered too frequently by women in many times and places. Hers is a characterization and defense of universal values, which she thinks results from our asking: What sort of life is worthy of the dignity of a human being? Also during the module, we’ll turn to readings and a film that will allow us to think about the politics and culture of human rights in two different places and times: along the border between the U.S. and Mexico (contemporary Juarez), and during the middle part of the last century in the civil rights movement in the U.S. By looking closely at particular cases, we hope to get a fuller sense of the complexities involved investigating questions such as: What is at stake in arguments about the shared, universal, or distinctive nature(s) of human beings?

The second module begins with two classic texts of political theory, both of which might reasonably be thought to ground political organization in alleged facts about human nature. Here we worry much about the alleged social or asocial nature of human beings — and what hinges on that. Then we turn to matters of contemporary concern that might well be thought to be given shape by these disputes: issues of recognition and misrecognition, individual as opposed to group rights, and difference-blindness.

The third and final module asks how it is we come to categorize human beings as we do. More important, perhaps, we’re keen throughout the module to devote attention to how it is that such categorization alters our understanding of ourselves and how it comes to structure the environments in which we live.

What are some other changes to Core I?

Formerly, there was one lecture followed by one discussion throughout the semester. One downside, which both students and faculty noted, was that there was just not enough time to consider the lecture and readings in one discussion. It was really frustrating. This semester, with only a few exceptions, we’ll have two meetings in seminar after each lecture. This will have quite a real impact on our experience of Core I. The weight of the course will shift dramatically to the seminars.

In addition, we have included in the syllabus supplementary readings throughout the semester to support work in our discussion seminars. These were chosen and included with the aim of making more apparent the bearing of different readings upon each other within modules and, as well, as a way of making apparent the relationship between the issues in the different modules.

What happens in Core II and Core III?

Core II, the second semester of the program, offers small seminar sessions — usually team-taught by two members of the faculty — that explore a tightly focused interdisciplinary topic or problem. In spring 2011, we have 21 professors teaching Core II courses. Six of these courses are newly developed team-taught courses. Then, in the first semester of the second year, students choose from an even wider array of different Core III seminars. These emphasize independent research and projects and help prepare students for future work, especially the work students will do in their senior theses.

The term “interdisciplinarity” is tossed around loosely in academic circles. What is distinctive about Scripps’ interdisciplinary approach and why is it so important?

Throughout the Core Program, we take interdisciplinarity seriously. That doesn’t mean simply drawing on various different disciplines smorgasbord-style — taking a bit of this, then a bit of that — and hoping it adds up to something. Rather, it is a matter of raising issues and questions that require an interdisciplinary approach. One way to think of it is that interdisciplinarity is a property of investigations; it is something we have to do if we’re going to get a grip on certain questions. This is something that we try to highlight at the very start of students’ time at Scripps in Core I.

I think it is not an accident that Scripps students tend, in far greater numbers than students at most other similar colleges, to have dual and double and self-designed majors. It’s natural after work in the Core Program to regard questions and problems as failing to respect disciplinary constraints. Interestingly, hard problems and questions do not come neatly wrapped in disciplinary packages.

How does Core relate to Ellen Browning Scripps’ vision for the College?

Our commitment at Scripps to a common investigation by students and faculty in a Core Humanities program goes back to our very beginnings. Few institutions have taken such a project so seriously for so long. It’s a part of the soul of this place. Ellen Browning Scripps wrote, very shortly after she founded the College: “It is an experimental age, and we don’t want to be too sure that we are even on the right track in our method of education. Our schools should be but an open door to knowledge.” That’s the expression of and a plea for the sort of intellectual agility, and a capacity to tolerate ambiguity in dealing with pressing questions, that makes for discovery and innovation. She saw clearly that these were much of the point of a liberal arts education. These remain the hallmarks of our current Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities.


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