The Core - Inspiration from Plato to Pope Benedict XVI
By Al Frank
Seton Hall University's "Core Curriculum" offers more than the "great books" credits many colleges require their students to take by providing a fundamental grounding in the Catholic intellectual tradition. That scholarship embraces Christian sources as well as the body of thought generated by other religions and cultures.
Dr. Nancy Enright, Associate Professor and Director of First Year Writing
"It's not like a catechism class," said Dr. Nancy Enright, a literature professor who has taught Core courses almost since their introduction in 2006. "We try to get students to see how the Catholic intellectual tradition encompasses a variety of texts and an array of ideas and how those ideas can help them become Servant Leaders."
Integrated with the other courses students take, such as Core English writing, literature and math, the goal is to form habits of lifelong learning. Using a common intellectual ground hones skills in evaluating multiple sources and communicating their significance.
"It helps you become more of a thinking person, more reflective," said Dr. Enright, who joined the faculty in 1980.
The assumption is that the foundational work of the Core provides common elements students can build upon in the other courses they take. Many say they are surprised how well the process works.
"Core classes gave me a great understanding of the basic texts of both Western and non-Western philosophy and thought," said Edgar O. Vargas '14, a diplomacy and international relations major.
"I walked into Christianity in Culture and Dialogue with many negative notions and walked out wishing I could take it again thanks to Dr. Enright," said nursing major Kristy A. Fernandez '14. "She made me a better writer, a better reader, and a better scholar overall by assuring that we engaged in fun and creative exercises, writing a million (extremely helpful) corrections on what I thought were perfect papers, and being highly passionate about the works she discusses."
The idea for a core tailored to Seton Hall's Catholic mission was first broached to the faculty by then-President Monsignor Robert Sheeran in 1998.
"The feeling was there was no integrating experience and that there was a need for more engagement with Catholic texts and writers," said Dr. Anthony Sciglitano, Director of the University Core Curriculum and chairman of the Department of Religion.
"The professors who volunteer to teach do so as part of their regular load and bring their particular expertise and perspective," Sciglitano said.
Since its full roll-out in 2008 its importance to the University was affirmed three years ago in the Strength to Strength, 10-year strategic plan and this year's hiring of five, full-time faculty who teach the Core exclusively.
Dr. Anthony Sciglitano, Director of the University Core Curriculum
The curriculum is comprised of three, three-credit "signature" courses. The first, Journey of Transformation, offers an array of readings from Plato and the Bible to Tolstoy, bracketed by Vatican Council II's "Nostra Aetate" declaration and the "God Is Love" encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI. The second signature course, Christianity and Culture in Dialogue, offers selections from early Christian writers and from other thinkers, including Marx and Nietzsche. The third course is tailored to the majors of the students. The Class of 2012 was the first to complete the full Core.
"It's not all lecture but a lot of discussion," Dr. Enright said. "We look at the good that is being affirmed." That approach was at the heart of the Catholic university tradition that came to prominence in the Middle Ages, when scholars like Aquinas looked at Aristotle and saw the values and methods of thinking that could be applied to Christian life.
"The integration of faith and knowledge is the positive contribution made by the Catholic intellectual tradition and the fundamental notion a Catholic University should be striving to impart to its students," Dr. Sciglitano explained
For Dr. Enright's classes, the practical comes to life through a service project. Students also use art and YouTube, or Power Points to make connections between a text and a contemporary song. "I'm always amazed," she said.
In their third-year course, Professors Bert Wachsmuth and Michael Vigorito divide their class into teams of two or three students and provide each with a kit to program a robot to perform different tasks as students explore the question of what it means to be human. Dr. Vigorito, a professor of psychology, explains how the brain works and learns.
"They explore what distinguishes humans from machines, what it means to have a soul and whether you can program a soul into a machine," said Dr. Wachsmuth, an associate professor of math and computer science.